65 health agency workers infected in Geneva

Our Reporter 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) 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.

The United Nations health agency, according to media reports,  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 yesterday of the figures in the email 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 reporters.

The email said about half of the infections recorded so far were in people who had been working from home.

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But 32 were in staff who had been working on premises at the headquarters building, where more than 2000 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 at the weekend, 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.

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. WHO, which is coordinating the global response to the pandemic, had previously said that staffers had been infected but never provided a number or details.