Major events were among the first things to happen in the novel Coronavirus began to spread around the world for the first time in February. Concerts, conferences and other gatherings were canceled or virtually in the spring.
In Boston, however, Biogen’s elite medical conference continued as planned on February 26-27, with more than 100 cases of COVID-19 reported to the eventfor contact tracers. However, a team of scientists using genetic sequencing to track the continued spread of this strain of coronavirus says it will actually continue to spread until November 1 of this year – much, much further.
Between 205,000 and 300,000 coronavirus cases in the US can be traced back to the Boston conference, say the scientists, the results of which were published in the journal science on Thursday.
“Genomic data show that the impact of the conference was far greater than the 100 or so cases directly linked to the event,” the scientists write.
The authors of the paper reached their conclusions by analyzing the genetic code of the coronavirus. Like all viruses, the one causing COVID-19 mutates on its way from person to person. Tracking genetic changes in the virus in a population can help scientists understand how and where it spread.
“It’s like some viruses have speckles and others don’t, and we’re tracking these speckled viruses across time and space,” said Jacob Lemieux, lead author of the study, told CBS MoneyWatch.
In the days following the Boston conference, scientists took samples from 28 of the 100 patients who had contact tracers linked to the event. The scientists compared the virus strain in these patients with a national database of information on coronavirus infections.
The conference was key to spreading the virus in Boston. As of Nov. 1, nearly half of COVID-19 cases in the four counties of the Boston area had the genetic marker linking the virus to the conference, implying the event in 51,000 cases in the area.
This genetic marker appeared in other states in early March and was particularly common in places where conference attendees returned home. That includes Florida, where 29% of conference-related cases ended. was good like Indiana and North Carolina. The virus strain has also been found as far as Australia and Slovakia.
“It is surprising to the public to realize that a single event can cause so many downstream infections,” Lemieux said, adding, “These events have been going on since day one [of the pandemic] – the Wuhan fish market, ski resorts in Europe, cruise ships, carnivals, a wedding in Maine, the Sturgis motorcycle rally [in South Dakota]””
In fact, in the course of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, the conference likely played a much bigger role than other super-spreader events, including medical facility outbreaks.
For example, the scientists also analyzed an outbreak in a nursing home in which 24 residents were killed. “It was disastrous for the patients there,” Lemieux said, but genetic analysis showed the virus did not spread outside the facility.
Likewise, analysis of coronavirus samples from patients at Massachusetts General Hospital led to the conclusion that the virus was not transmitted within the hospital.
In contrast, attendees at the Boston medical conference “tended to be younger, healthier, and travel more, and we found they went to many different places,” Lemieux said. Ultimately, this was what made the conference more widespread, and possibly a higher social cost.
The Boston incident wasn’t unique, which is what makes the study so valuable.
“We don’t think these tribes tended to spread more than anyone else,” Lemieux said. “We suspect that this type of event occurs again and again and contributes significantly to the worldwide spread and spread of SARS-cov2.”
Lemieux added, “The conditions under which these very proliferating events can occur are still with us and will remain with us for a long time.”
Shortly before Christmas time, it is of vital importance for Americans to remain vigilant and not contribute to the further spread of the virus. “Maintain social distance, wear masks where possible, and avoid indoor gatherings,” he said.