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China investigating ex-Biogen employee who fled there while sick with coronavirus

Mystery surrounds why the woman left her Belmont home and flew to China last week.

The home of Jie Li of Belmont, a now-fired Biogen employee accused of spreading coronavirus to China.
The home of Jie Li of Belmont, a now-fired Biogen employee accused of spreading coronavirus to China.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

A statistician who was working in Massachusetts for Biogen Inc.,the sponsor of the now infamous Boston meeting at the epicenter of the state’s COVID-19 outbreak, is being investigated in Beijing for allegedly flying to her native China while sick, not disclosing her exposure to coronavirus to the airline, and covering up her fever with drugs, according to reports in Chinese-based media.

Chinese authorities are considering if Jie Li, of Belmont, who was associate director of biostatistics for Biogen, according to an online profile, broke the law by impeding the prevention of infectious disease, according to government-controlled Chinese media. Li, 37, is a Chinese citizen from Chongqing, a megacity of some 30 million people, but has lived extensively in the United States, the reports say.

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She arrived in China on March 13, and has been widely denounced in Chinese media in recent days, after a Beijing official cited her case at a news conference as an example of what not to do in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed thousands worldwide.

Little is known about what motivated this highly educated professional, living in pricey Greater Boston suburbia, to allegedly take a risk that now has her portrayed as an international villain in the fight against COVID-19.

The Xinhua News Agency,an official Chinese government media outlet, reports that Li has the virus, but it is unclear if that report is based on a test taken in the United States or in China.

A Biogen official said the company knew nothing of the controversy in Beijing until it was reported in Chinese media.

“We can confirm that Ms. Li was a US Biogen employee who made the personal decision to travel to China without informing the company and ignoring the guidance of health experts,” said David Caouette, spokesman for the Cambridge-based biotechnical firm, in a statement Thursday. “We are deeply dismayed by the situation as reported by the media in China.”

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Li did not inform her superiors at Biogen that she was leaving, Caouette said. She left during a transition period when employees were beginning to work from home to combat the spread of the virus.

Biogen this week terminated Li’s employment.

Beijing investigators could not be directly reached by phone. Messages left on Li’s phone were not returned. The Globe made a number of unsuccessful attempts Thursday to reach people who know her. It is also unclear from Chinese news reports if reporters in China have sought comment from Li or her family.

Ninety-seven of the 328 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Massachusetts as of Thursday afternoon, or 30 percent, have been linked to Biogen’s Feb. 26-27 leadership meeting at the Marriott Long Wharf hotel on the Boston waterfront. The meeting brought together about 175 employees of the multinational biotechnical company, which makes therapies for neurological diseases. It is still unclear how or from whom the virus originally spread at the event, but within days, dozens of Biogen executives began feeling sick.

Li did not attend the Long Wharf conference but had contact with someone who did, said Caouette.

Chinese media reports, quoting Beijing officials, say Li developed common symptoms of COVID-19, such as a fever and a cough, while still in the United States, and visited a doctor here several times.

She was among a number of Biogen employees tested for COVID-19 in early March at Massachusetts General Hospital, but Li left the United States before the results of her test were known, according to a person with knowledge of her situation, who asked to be anonymous because the person was not authorized to speak about it.

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Sometime in early March, Li apparently called for medical help in Belmont, reporting flu-like symptoms, and a Fire Department EMS crew responded to Li’s address, according to a statement released Thursday by the Belmont Health Department. The caller asked to be transferred to a hospital for COVID-19 testing. Ultimately, the caller said she would drive herself to the hospital. The statement did not give specific dates.

Two days after that call, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health notified the Belmont Health Department that the Belmont resident had tested positive for COVID-19, the statement said. The Belmont Health Department attempted to contact the resident in-person, as well as by phone and text message, but they never connected with her.

By then, she had apparently left the Boston area.

It is not clear by what means Li, her husband, and her son traveled from Boston to Los Angeles, where they allegedly caught a China Air flight to Beijing on March 12. Before the plane departed from the Los Angeles airport around 2 a.m., Li allegedly did not disclose her health status, or her family’s, to flight attendants, according to Chinese media reports.

The reports says Li is accused of taking antipyretics, which are anti-fever drugs, before her flight to reduce her fever so as to not alert airline officials measuring the body temperatures of passengers to screen for possible coronavirus infections.

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Reports say that an hour after the plane took off, Li told a flight attendant she was uncomfortable and not feeling well, and she was moved to the rear of the cabin, separated from other passengers by a curtain. Only later did she disclose she had been running a fever, reports said. The flight landed after 13 hours in the air, around 5 a.m. local time the following day.

Chinese news reports say Li is being treated in a hospital for a coronavirus infection and that her husband has also tested positive. Nearly 60 people who were in close proximity to her on the plane are in quarantine, reports say.

A member of the public later reached out to the Belmont Health Department with word of the Chinese media reports. The Belmont Health Department contacted the Massachusetts Department of Health, which notified the Massachusetts Port Authority, which got in touch with travelers who might have come into contact with Li and her family during travel.

Another major city in China, Wuhan, was the original hub of the COVID-19 outbreak, which was believed to have begun in late 2019. The city experienced the worst of the pandemic in early February, and enacted heavy-handed containment measures to slow the spread. Today, China’s new infections have dwindled, with imported cases, such as Li’s, regularly outnumbering domestic ones. The National Health Commission said Thursday that they had no new domestic cases, and all of the 34 new infections reported the previous day were imported cases for the first time since the new coronavirus emerged.

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Li studied at the University of Science and Technology of China, and then earned her doctorate in statistics from the University of Iowa in 2009, according to her profile on LinkedIn. She worked as a statistician at Biogen from 2015 to 2018, left to work for another company, and then returned to Biogen in February 2019, according to LinkedIn.

No one answered the door Thursday when a Globe reporter stopped by Li’s home, a white split level ranch that the family bought in 2015, in a quiet Belmont neighborhood. A holiday wreath still hung, a snow shovel was squeezed behind a bush, and a recycling bin lay tipped to its side in the driveway with a Dunkin’ Donuts cup spilling out.

On the front door was taped a letter, addressed to Li, from the Belmont Department of Health.




Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark. Hanna can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @hannaskrueger.