- Biogen on Thursday announced plans to create a COVID-19 biobank, into which its employees, who were some of the first people in Massachusetts known to be infected with the new coronavirus, can contribute blood samples and other medical data.
- Employees who contracted the new coronavirus and later recovered from the disease it causes are eligible to contribute to the biobank. So too are their family members and close contacts, regardless of whether they had confirmed cases of COVID-19. The biobank will be run by a consortium that includes Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital.
- Thursday's announcement comes about two months after a Biogen leadership meeting in Boston that's believed to be one of the earliest "superspreading" events in the United States. The Massachusetts Department of Health attributes 99 of the state's coronaviruses cases to the Biogen meeting. Employees would go on to unknowingly carry the virus to other states as well.
A biobank may offer some kind of silver lining around the now-infamous Biogen leadership meeting.
Reporting from The Boston Globe and The New York Times details how the event, which hosted around 175 employees, had an outsized effect on the transmission of the novel coronavirus. Attendees went on to spread the virus, known as SARS-CoV-2, into states such as Indiana, North Carolina and Tennessee, which at the time had few to no confirmed cases. One employee hid her symptoms and made it all the way to China before authorities intervened.
Complicating matters further: soon after the leadership meeting, four of Biogen's top executives attended a crowded conference hosted by investment bank Cowen & Co. Two of those executives ended up testing positive for the virus.
Biogen said Thursday it will assist employees who want to contribute to the biobank, which is launching through a partnership between the company, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and the not-for-profit healthcare system Partners HealthCare.
The Broad Institute is responsible for collecting and de-identifying the blood samples, after which the biobank will provide an anonymous medical and biological dataset that researchers around the world can access as they investigate vaccines and treatments for the virus.
"According to researchers, this unique, clustered group of patients with a common exposure will offer a valuable lens into why some people show signs of disease and others are asymptomatic," Biogen said in a statement Thursday.
The data might help show why some patients have more severe symptoms than others, and uncover details about their immune systems — like the presence of neutralizing antibodies — that could "point the way toward short-term and long-term therapeutic options," Biogen added.
The biobank will also store frozen samples, according to Biogen, which could aid future research.
Biogen noted that it will have the same access to the biobank data as global researchers, meaning the company won't get any information about patient identities or which employees and close contacts participated.
"Thanks to these patients and their close contacts, we'll gain insights into the biology of how the disease moved through a relatively small group of the larger population, early in the local life-cycle in Massachusetts," said Deborah Hung, co-director of the Infectious Disease and Microbiome Program at the Broad Institute, in the April 16 statement.
The biobank, while not a drug development program, adds Biogen to the lengthy list of pharmaceutical companies that are putting resources into COVID-19 research. The list includes drugmaking giants such as Pfizer, Takeda, Sanofi and Johnson & Johnson, as well as medium-sized and smaller players like Moderna, BioNTech and CureVac.
Biogen has also agreed to work with Vir Biotechnology on manufacturing antibodies the smaller drugmaker develops for the disease.