65 coronavirus cases recorded in WHO Geneva staff, internal email shows

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recorded 65 cases of the coronavirus among staff based at its headquarters, including at least one cluster of infections, an internal email obtained by The Associated Press shows, despite the UN agency’s past assertions that there has been no transmission at the Geneva site.

The revelation comes amid a surge of cases in Europe, host country Switzerland and the city of Geneva, in particular, and the email said about half of the infections were in people who had been working from home. But 32 were in those who had been working on premises at the headquarters building, indicating that WHO’s strict hygiene, screening and other prevention measures were not sufficient to spare it from the pandemic.

WHO spokesperson Farah Dakhlallah confirmed the accuracy of the information about the case count in an email to the AP and that officials were still investigating.

“We have not yet established whether transmission occurred on campus but are looking into the matter,” Dakhlallah said.

Raul Thomas, who heads business operations at WHO, emailed staff on Friday noting that five people — four on the same team and one who had contact with them— had tested positive for COVID-19. While the email did not use the term “cluster,” it is generally defined as two or more cases in the same area, and the five cases indicate basic infection control and physical distancing procedures were likely being broken.

A previous email he sent on Oct. 16 indicated that no clusters had been found at the site.

“As per standard protocols, these colleagues are receiving the necessary medical attention and are recovering at home,” the email 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.”

WHO officials raised concerns about cluster, source says

The email did not specify who was infected, but a WHO staffer with direct knowledge of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the press said the cluster included a member of the director-general’s leadership team who is also an infection control specialist.

Thomas’s email was sent after other WHO officials raised concerns that people who had been in contact with the cluster were still working in the Geneva building and potentially exposing others to COVID-19, the staffer said.

A WHO staffer says agency officials raised concerns that people who had been in contact with a cluster of positive COVID-19 cases were still working in the Geneva building and potentially exposing others to the virus. (Raphael Satter/The Associated Press)

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 WHO’s media office.

WHO has faced repeated criticism of its handling of the pandemic. U.S. 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.

According to Thomas’s 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 said that “a higher number of cases among those who telework might have gone unreported.”

Enhanced measures to “reduce our risk profile” were being considered, the email said.

“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.

Access to headquarters restricted

Last month, Thomas told WHO staffers the agency was restricting access to its Geneva headquarters to critical staff, 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 metre) and wear masks, when distancing is not possible,” he wrote.

In normal times, an estimated 2,400 people regularly work at WHO’s seven-storey headquarters overlooking Geneva. As the pandemic has swelled in the area, employees 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.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for the COVID-19 response, told reporters on Nov. 2 there had been no transmission or clusters at headquarters, before adding, ‘But it is something that we’re monitoring every day.’ (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

And ahead of WHO’s week-long meeting of its member states last week — which was mostly virtual — staffers were told in an internal email to take extra precautions, including mask-wearing in public places.

On Monday, from a vast meeting room at the headquarters, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and other officials were participating in a session of the agency’s latest executive board meeting, which was largely conducted by video conference.

Tedros was returning from a two-week self-quarantine at home after coming into contact with a person who tested positive. Because the director general did not show any symptoms himself, he was not tested for COVID-19 but stayed at home out of an abundance of caution.

On Nov. 2, WHO’s technical lead for the COVID-19 response, Maria Van Kerkhove, told reporters there had been no transmission or clusters at headquarters, before adding: “But it is something that we’re monitoring every day.”

The WHO press office did not respond to two emails from the AP — on Nov. 2 and Nov. 10 — asking how many staffers based at WHO headquarters had tested positive for COVID-19.

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