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65 coronavirus cases found among World Health Organization staff in Geneva

Logo of the World Health Organization at its headquarters in Geneva
The logo of the World Health Organization at WHO headquarters in Geneva.
(Anja Niedringhaus / Associated Press)

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

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

Farah Dakhlallah, a WHO spokeswoman, confirmed the accuracy of the information about the case count in an email to the AP but said the agency had not yet determined whether the spread happened at its offices.

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

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A previous email Thomas sent 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,” Friday’s email 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.”

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Thomas’ email did not specify who was infected, but a staff member with direct knowledge of the situation, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media, said the cluster included an infection-control specialist member who serves on Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ leadership team.

The senior manager reportedly held several in-person meetings at the WHO in early November before testing positive last week. The person, contacted by the AP, referred all comments to the WHO media office.

The agency has faced repeated criticism of its handling of the pandemic. President Trump accused the U.N. agency of “colluding” with China to hide the extent of the initial outbreak. In June, the AP found that WHO publicly lauded China for its speed and transparency even though in private meetings WHO officials were frustrated that the country delayed release of critical outbreak information.

According to Thomas’ email, 49 of the 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.”

A senior World Health Organization official says its ‘best estimates’ indicate that roughly 1 in 10 people worldwide may have had the coronavirus.

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,” the email added.

Elsewhere in Geneva, restaurants are among many public venues that have been closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

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

The president said WHO had failed to adequately respond to the coronavirus because China has ‘total control’ over the global health organization.

In normal times, an estimated 2,400 people regularly work at the WHO’s seven-story headquarters. As outbreaks in the area have worsened, staff members 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.

And ahead of the agency’s weeklong meeting of member states last week — which was mostly virtual — the staff was 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, Tedros and other officials participated in a session of the agency’s latest executive board meeting, which was largely conducted by videoconference. Tedros was returning from a two-week self-quarantine after coming into contact with a person who had tested positive. Because Tedros did not show any symptoms himself, he was not tested for the coronavirus but stayed at home as a precaution.

On Nov. 2, the WHO’s technical lead for the COVID-19 response, Maria Van Kerkhove, told reporters that 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 staff members based in Geneva had tested positive for the coronavirus.


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