World Health Organization (WHO) says 65 of its headquarters staff in Geneva, Switzerland, have tested positive for the Coronavirus disease (Covid-19.)
The development follows earlier claims by the world health body that there has been no transmission of the virus at the Geneva site.
The revelation also comes amid a surge of cases in Europe, host country Switzerland, and the city of Geneva, in particular, and in contrast to earlier claim by the WHO that half of the infections were in people who had been working from home.
However, the latest report found out 32 were in-staff who had been working on premises at the headquarters building, indicating that the health agency’s strict hygiene, screening and other prevention measures were not sufficient to spare it from the pandemic.
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,” one is generally defined as two or more cases in the same area, and the five cases indicate basic infection control and social distancing procedures were likely being broken.
A previous email he sent on October. 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.”
Thomas’ 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 WHO director-general’s leadership team who is also an infection control specialist.
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.
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.”
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.
It would be recalled that 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.