Coronavirus 'cluster' recorded at World Health Organization's headquarters in GenevaComments
The World Health Organization has recorded 65 cases of the coronavirus among staff based at its headquarters, including five people who worked on the premises and were in contact with one another, a leaked internal email shows.
The UN health agency said it is investigating how and where the five people became infected — and that it has not determined whether transmission happened at its offices. WHO's confirmation Monday of the figures in the email obtained by The Associated Press was the first time it has publicly provided such a count.
"To my knowledge, the cluster being investigated is the first evidence of potential transmission on the site of WHO," Dr Michael Ryan, the agency's chief of emergencies, told a press conference at the WHO on Monday.
The email said about half of the infections recorded so far were in people who had been working from home. But 32 were in staff who had been working on premises at the headquarters building, where more than 2,000 people usually work and the agency says it has put in place strict hygiene, screening and other prevention measures.
In the email, which was sent to staff on Friday, Raul Thomas, who heads business operations at WHO, noted that five people — four on the same team and one who had contact with them— had tested positive for COVID-19. That could indicate that basic infection control and social distancing procedures in place may have been broken.
"We have had some cases that have been associated with the premises. We do have some cases in the last week that are linked together," Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, confirmed on Monday at the same press conference.
Of the linked cases, she added: "There are possible ways in which they were infected outside of the premises. So we’re still doing the epidemiologic investigation with that".
Two weeks ago, Van Kerkhove had said there had been no transmission at headquarters to that point but added that the agency was monitoring it. The WHO, which is coordinating the global response to the pandemic, had previously said that staffers had been infected but hadn't provided a number or details.
"As per standard protocols, these colleagues are receiving the necessary medical attention and are recovering at home," the email on Friday said. "These last five cases bring the total reported number of affected members of the Geneva based workforce to 65 since the beginning of the pandemic."
According to the email, 49 of the overall cases had occurred in the last eight weeks, "thus very much in line with the situation being reported in Geneva and the surrounding areas". He added that "a higher number of cases among those who telework might have gone unreported". The timing of the other 16 cases was not clear.
The revelation comes amid a surge of cases in Europe, host country Switzerland, and the city of Geneva, in particular.
The email did not specify who was infected, but a WHO staffer with direct knowledge of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity said the five linked cases included a member of the WHO director-general’s leadership team who is also an infection control specialist.
Thomas' email was sent after other WHO officials raised concerns that people who had been in contact with the group were still working in the Geneva building and potentially exposing others to COVID-19, the staffer said.
The senior manager reportedly held several in-person meetings at WHO in early November before testing positive last week. The person, contacted by the AP, referred all comments to the WHO media office.
WHO has faced repeated criticism of its handling of the pandemic. US President Donald Trump accused the UN agency of "colluding" with China to hide the extent of the initial outbreak. In June, the AP found WHO publicly lauded China for its speed and transparency, even though private meetings showed WHO officials frustrated that the country sat on releasing critical outbreak information.
The email obtained by the AP said enhanced measures to "reduce our risk profile" were being considered.
“Finally, members of the workforce are reminded that physical meetings, including gatherings in common areas or in the cafeteria, are strongly discouraged and should only take place where absolutely necessary,” it added.
Elsewhere in Geneva, restaurants are among many public venues that have been closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Last month, Thomas told WHO staffers the agency was restricting access to its Geneva headquarters to critical staffers, including senior directors, their assistants and management officers. “All members for the workforce are reminded to always keep proper hand hygiene, respect physical distancing standards (at least one meter) and wear masks, when distancing is not possible,” he wrote.
In normal times, an estimated 2,400 people regularly work at WHO’s seven-story headquarters overlooking Geneva. As the pandemic has swelled in the area, staffers have been encouraged to work from home when possible. Non-staff visitors have been required to wear masks, and access to the building has been curtailed.