How One Conference Spread the Virus to Thousands

By Shlomo Maital

   We have consistently underestimated the degree to which the novel coronavirus is contagious and able to spread rapidly. And we keep waking up to bars, schools, universities, etc. creating new hotspots.

   Now, Angus Chen, a WBUR Boston radio reporter, reports on a new study by experts at Harvard-MIT’s Broad Institute, about how an innocent conference sponsored by biotech giant Biogen, in Cambridge MA., led to thousands of infections.

   “Early in the pandemic, state health officials counted 99 coronavirus cases stemming from a fateful Biogen meeting that turned into a superspreading event. Now, new genetic evidence suggests the infections unleashed at the Cambridge biotech company’s gathering in February washed through the Boston area and rippled across the world. Overall, the data suggests the event led to 40% of all COVID-19 infections in the Boston area as of July 1, says Bronwyn MacInnis, a viral genomicist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the senior author of a new, pre-publication study that attempts to trace the viral descendants of that outbreak. That translates to tens of thousands of cases.  “It’s fair to say it’s striking. [The conference] certainly has had an impact on the trajectory of the pandemic domestically and abroad,” MacInnis says. “It’s a great example of how connected we all are, and how viruses are agnostic to how they move and who they may infect. The activities that happen in one corner of a society can have far-reaching effects on others.” “

   Is there a positive message in this super-spread episode? There is.

   President Trump’s mantra, America First, revives selfish narcissistic world views, that has alienated allies abroad. And there are significant groups outside of America who embrace this me-only view.

   Along comes the virus, and recites John Donne’s 1633 poem, and teaches us anew its message:

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thine own

Or of thine friend’s were.

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind

If the virus is not contained in California, Massachusetts will be at risk. If the virus is not contained in the US, then Germany is at risk. If the virus is not contained anywhere, then everywhere else is at risk.

Each person’s infection diminishes everyone else. For we are all involved and connected, in humankind.   Nature has conspired to teach us this lesson, in a most painful and costly manner.