In late February, as the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in the US, the biotech company Biogen became an unwitting superspreader. More than 100 Biogen leaders and executives had attended a leadership meeting in Massachusetts on February 26 and 27. When the executives flew home—to Europe, Asia, and across the US—they spread SARS-CoV-2 to their families and coworkers, seeding new outbreaks. According to the official count, 99 people living in Massachusetts alone were infected with SARS-CoV-2 as a result of the Biogen meeting. The total number of people infected in the US and around the world is higher.
The company chose to capitalize on its early COVID-19 misfortune by helping others with their research. “Several Biogen employees, who at the time were still recovering from COVID-19, began to consider ways they could offer their own anonymized medical information to research efforts,” explains Maha Radhakrishnan, the chief medical officer at Biogen, in an email to The Scientist. “We realized we were in a unique position to contribute to advancing COVID-19 science in an organized and deliberate way.”
On April 16, Biogen announced a collaboration with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Partners HealthCare, and several local hospitals to develop a COVID-19 biobank. Biogen employees and their close contacts could volunteer to donate blood samples to researchers at the Broad Institute, who would use the tissue to study immune responses to SARS-CoV-2.
Researchers at the Broad Institute collect blood and clinical history from volunteers. Those with high titers of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies are called back to give additional samples.
The Biogen cohort was of particular interest to researchers for several reasons. As Ramnik Xavier, an immunologist at the Broad Institute and a member of the COVID-19 Biobank Steering Committee, explains, the infections occurred during a defined time frame within a closed environment. This makes it possible to study patterns of infection.
Another unique feature of the Biogen cohort is that among employees and contacts known to be infected, the cases were nearly all mild and didn’t require hospitalization. As Xavier explains, people infected with SARS-CoV-2 produce antibodies in response, but only a subset of those people produce antibodies capable of neutralizing the virus, according to data from the Biogen biobank and other studies. “A question out there is, do patients make high-titer neutralizing antibodies following a mild infection, or is it less common than after a severe infection that requires hospitalization?”
The biobank also collects blood from Biogen employees and close contacts who were exposed to SARS-CoV-2 but didn’t develop an infection. Researchers are using those samples to search for determinants of COVID-19 infection and disease severity.
To date, around 150 volunteers have signed up: an anonymized mix of Biogen employees and their close contacts. Over the past few weeks, about 30 volunteers have given blood samples, and Xavier says the team plans to finish the first round of sampling within the next few weeks.
Although Biogen spearheaded the development of the project, Radhakrishnan explains over email that the biobank is structured to protect the privacy of Biogen employees who take part. “Biogen will have the same level of access to the Biobank as researchers around the world, which means it will not have access to identifiable information.”
Academic groups wishing to use the biobank data for their own research can submit proposals to the steering committee. There are several other COVID-19 biobanks, such as the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogenic Readiness, collecting samples from hospitalized patients. Researchers around the US are using biobank samples to develop monoclonal antibody treatments for COVID-19 and to standardize serological assays.
Correction (May 19): The article now notes that the biobank is collecting samples from employees and their close contacts, not strictly family members. The Scientist regrets the error.