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Takeda, drug maker with biggest head count in Mass., tells most employees to work from home

The company, which has 5,000 employees at its US headquarters in Cambridge, says they should stay at least six feet from one another

Japanese drug giant Takeda's Cambridge headquarters.
Japanese drug giant Takeda's Cambridge headquarters.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. urged its 50,000 global employees on Sunday, including the roughly 5,000 in Massachusetts who make up the largest head count of any drug maker in the state, to work from home if possible until further notice to avoid spreading the new coronavirus.

The Japanese drug giant, whose US headquarters and research-and-development operations are in Cambridge, told employees in an e-mail that if they work in a laboratory or a manufacturing plant and can’t telecommute, they should limit workplace gatherings to no more than 10 people and keep at least six feet from one another.

Takeda also canceled all non-essential international and domestic business travel by any means other than employees’ cars through May 31. And if employees can’t work from home and have to use mass transit, the company recommended that they commute at off-peak hours.

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“As a global pharmaceutical leader, our top priority during this outbreak is to do all we can to protect the health of our employees, those who work alongside them, their families and our communities, while making sure our medicines and services continue to reach patients who rely on them,” two high-ranking Takeda executives said in the e-mail early Sunday.

Only one Takeda employee, a worker at a production plant in Belgium, has been diagnosed with Covid-19, said Katie Joyce, a spokeswoman for Takeda’s US operations. He was diagnosed Thursday after he returned from a trip to Italy. He didn’t report to work and is recovering at home, Joyce said.

The e-mail to Takeda’s workforce came after at least eight employees of the Cambridge biotech Biogen were diagnosed with coronavirus after attending a two-day conference of 175 company managers at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel last week. At least two other coronavirus cases in the United States and two in Europe have also been linked to the conference.

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But Dr. Rajeev Venkayya, president of Takeda’s global vaccine business unit, who cowrote the e-mail on behalf of the company’s crisis management committee, said the recommendations were in the works before news about the Biogen-related outbreak.

That rash of cases related to the Biogen meeting “helps employees to understand why this is important,” Venkayya said in an interview. “We could call it a proof point.”

Venkayya is well versed in efforts to prevent epidemics. A pulmonary specialist, he spent about four years in the administration of President George W. Bush, helping to oversee preparations for biological threats and crafting a national strategy to handle an influenza pandemic.

He said Takeda is trying to strike a delicate balance of “informing without panicking people.” Most cases of coronavirus are mild, he said. But older adults and those with underlying medical conditions can get seriously ill, and the fatality rate appears to be higher than that of influenza.

Regardless of how seriously ill patients become, he added, Covid-19 cases are highly disruptive because public health authorities have to track down other individuals who came into contact with the sick people.

Takeda is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, with employees in 80 countries, according to Joyce, the spokeswoman. Although it’s based in Osaka, Japan, its biggest workforce is in the United States, about 18,000 employees in states from California to Illinois to Georgia.

Although the company advised employees to work from home until further notice, the e-mail acknowledged that some of them work in laboratories and manufacturing plants and can’t telecommute. Those employees should engage in “social distancing," the e-mail said, limiting gatherings to no more than 10 employees and staying at least six feet apart from one another to prevent spreading infections if people cough or sneeze.

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Venkayya said that lab and plant managers may ask employees who need to report to work to take their temperature once or twice a day to determine whether they have a fever.

Takeda, which last year moved its US headquarters from Deerfield, Ill., to Cambridge, had planned to hold its annual leadership meeting for 300 employees in May in Boston for the first time. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, the meeting will be held by teleconference.

Takeda is among several drug companies racing to develop the first approved medicine to treat Covid-19. It’s trying to create a medicine that would be made from the plasma of people who developed immunity to the virus because they recovered from the disease or received a yet-to-be approved vaccine for it.

The drug would be geared to high-risk individuals who catch Covid-19, including the elderly and people with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease. Joyce said the company would like to have a drug available in nine to 18 months, but that could change.


Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com