fb-pixel Skip to main content

For Biogen, it’s been a rough ride

It started a year ago, when the Cambridge biotech’s executive conference became a COVID-19 ‘superspreader’

Quincy Market on a Saturday afternoon in May 2020. Danni Askini, one of Massachusetts' first confirmed coronavirus cases, spent time with friends who had attended the Biogen conference, ending heir evening at a Quincy Market bar.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

For many of us, it’s been the worst 12 months ever. People in biopharma, however, largely consider it a triumph.

Two COVID-19 vaccines, including one by Cambridge-based Moderna, were developed and cleared for emergency use in less than a year, with a third authorized last month, shattering speed records. Hundreds of drug makers scrambled to create rival vaccines and coronavirus treatments. Eighty-one biotechnology companies debuted on the stock market, a new high-water mark, as investors bet billions on the next big thing.

Then there was Biogen. The contrast in recent fortunes between brash, young Moderna and Biogen, a Cambridge neighbor that helped pioneer the biotechnology industry when it was founded in 1978, couldn’t be more striking.

Advertisement



Just over a year ago, about 175 Biogen executives gathered at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel for a two-day international leadership conference that became one of the earliest coronavirus “superspreading” events in the United States.

Soon 99 people in Massachusetts ― Biogen employees and people they had contact with ― were diagnosed with the illness, according to the state Department of Public Health, which stopped counting conference-related cases in late March. It was COVID-19′s first major beachhead in the state.

But the true number of Biogen-related cases appears to be thousands of times higher. A study in the journal Science in December estimated that 205,000 to 300,000 globally are probably traceable to the event, including 1.6 percent of all those in the United States through Nov. 1, according to Dr. Jacob Lemieux, an infectious diseases physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and lead author of the article.

For Biogen, the biggest employer among homegrown drug companies in Massachusetts, with about 2,400 workers, having its name associated with the spread of disease rather than its prevention or treatment was bad enough. But the global biotechnology pioneer soon suffered other setbacks.

Advertisement



Its closely watched experimental medicine for Alzheimer’s disease, aducanumab, was flayed by an advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration. That renewed doubts about a yet-to-be approved drug that has raised hopes for millions diagnosed with the devastating illness, as well as their families. An effective Alzheimer’s drug is considered the holy grail in the pharmaceutical industry.

Biogen also lost a long-running legal battle to preserve its patent on Tecfidera, a blockbuster multiple sclerosis medicine that the generic-drugs giant Mylan began selling in August.

Meanwhile, Biogen faces increasing competition for another blockbuster drug, Spinraza, which treats the deadly neurological disease spinal muscular atrophy.

John Carroll, editor of Endpoints News, which covers the biotech industry, said it’s impossible not to compare the recent fortunes of Biogen and Moderna, which are a 10-minute walk from one another. He noted that on Feb. 24 last year, Moderna delivered the first batch of its experimental messenger RNA vaccine for COVID-19 to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Maryland for the start of an early-stage trial. Two days later, he said, Biogen held “the mother of all super spreader events.”

“Moderna would go on to help revolutionize the vaccine industry and combat the worst health care crisis in a century with new technology,” Carroll said in an e-mail. “Biogen would be embroiled in a rolling controversy over the data for a questionable Alzheimer’s drug while its big cash cow franchise,” Tecfidera, “was being led to slaughter.”

Advertisement



Biogen’s chief executive, Michel Vounatsos, declined to be interviewed for this story. Several employees at Biogen, which specializes in drugs for neurological conditions, also wouldn’t comment about the conference and cases of COVID-19 among attendees that first made news reports on March 5 last year.

David Caouette, a Biogen spokesman, said in a statement that 2020 “was an unprecedented year for everyone,” citing not only the pandemic but racial injustice and political turmoil. He did not address the conference but said the company’s foundation had donated more than $12.2 million in grants for COVID-19 relief and added that “2021 has the potential to be a transformative year” for the firm. He declined to say how many Biogen employees got sick after the Marriott gathering, whether any were top executives, and whether everyone recovered, citing confidentiality.

Some researchers who have studied the superspreader event express sympathy for the company. Lemieux, who works at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard as well as at Mass. General, said Biogen held the conference when the pandemic still seemed a far-off threat and knowledge about the virus was in its infancy.

The gathering was held Feb. 26-27. At that point, the Department of Public Health had confirmed only one case of COVID-19, a University of Massachusetts Boston student who had returned from Wuhan, the city in China where the virus had emerged in December 2019. Most of the identified cases in the United States were a continent away, in Washington and California.

The waterfront hotel drew Biogen executives from around the country and overseas, including Italy, where a serious outbreak had prompted the government to quarantine more than 50,000 people. Employees who hadn’t seen each other for a year shook hands and hugged, schmoozed over beers, and lined up at a self-serve hot-food bar.

Advertisement



“Clearly, the decision to go forward with this conference, in retrospect, was inadvisable,” Lemieux said. “But I really don’t put a lot of blame on a company at the time trying to make a decision with uncertain guidance. I look at what I was doing at the time and all my colleagues, going to work, working side by side without masks.”

It would be two more weeks before the World Health Organization labeled COVID-19 a pandemic. And it wasn’t until July, Lemieux noted, that the organization said the coronavirus could linger in the air in crowded indoor spaces, spreading from one person to the next. The WHO had described that form of transmission as doubtful, and instead blamed spread of the disease on large respiratory droplets that, once expelled in coughs and sneezes, fall quickly to the floor. Lemieux said virus particles floating in a poorly ventilated room at the conference was the more likely cause of the outbreak.

No one knows for sure who introduced COVID-19 at the conference or whether that individual or individuals worked at Biogen, Lemieux said. What is clear is that the event kindled a coronavirus wildfire.

He and a team of researchers analyzed the genetic sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused cases in and outside of Massachusetts. Mutations in the genetic code appeared as the virus made copies of itself, acting like passport stamps, and enabling the sleuths to see where the pathogen had been.

Advertisement



The researchers identified more than 80 distinct genomes of viruses that infected people in the Boston area in the first five months of 2020. But the virus traceable to the Long Wharf hotel had an outsized impact, compared with the others, particularly after attendees boarded planes for other parts of the country and overseas. By November, the genetic signature nearly synonymous with the conference could be found in COVID-19 cases as far away as Australia, Slovakia, and Sweden, as well as in 29 states, according to the paper in Science.

Among those who caught COVID-19 from someone who attended the conference was Danni Askini, a registered nurse and social worker from the Washington, D.C., area who works with homeless people. She was in Boston to receive treatment at Mass. General for lymphoma, which was in remission. She picked up two friends at the Marriott whom she had met in Seattle, where Askini had lectured on public health at the University of Washington. The three of them and two other conference attendees had dinner at an Italian restaurant in the North End.

Four days later, Askini woke with sharp pain in her chest and a fever of 103. She could barely breathe. All five people who went to dinner got sick. Much to Askini’s frustration, she said, the Department of Public Health twice refused to screen her for COVID-19 before she eventually tested positive.

Askini had intended to leave Massachusetts on March 1 for home, but she ended up staying in a hastily rented apartment with her husband until April because she was so weak. Her symptoms included high blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat that persisted until June.

“It was brutal,” she said.

She doesn’t fault Biogen for holding the conference but says the company was too tightlipped after the outbreak. She said it should have used the experience to publicly urge then-President Trump ― who described the coronavirus as the Democratic Party’s “new hoax” at a Feb. 28 campaign rally ― and other corporations to do everything possible to halt the spreading disease.

Biogen, she said, “went from unconscious ignorance of not knowing how bad this pandemic could be to having firsthand experience and having a moral obligation to share that and say, ‘Don’t be like us.’ ”

The superspreader event was hardly the only bad news for the company, whose short-term prospects rely heavily on one closely watched experimental drug: aducanumab.

In November, an 11-member advisory panel to the FDA concluded Biogen had failed to prove that the experimental medicine for Alzheimer’s disease, which the biotech developed with its Japanese partner, Eisai, was effective.

Although the committee never specifically recommended that the FDA reject the request for approval, the outside experts made it clear they believed that Biogen — and some FDA officials who guided it through the application ― had cherry-picked positive clinical trial data and jettisoned negative results.

The FDA has postponed its decision on Biogen’s application for approval of the drug from March to June, and analysts reading the tea leaves say the delay could portend good or bad news.

“Funny thing, if they do get aducanumab OK’d, and a lot of smart people think that will happen, all may well be forgiven on Wall Street,” Carroll said in an e-mail.

The one thing that’s certain is that the decision on aducanumab, whose ups and downs over the past couple of years have swung billions of dollars on the stock market, will have a huge impact on Biogen.

“It’s been a tough year” for Biogen, said Brian Skorney, an analyst at the investment bank Baird. If the FDA rejects the application, he said, “It’s a pretty big blow.”




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