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, an internal email obtained by The Associated Press shows.
The U.N. 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 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 Monday after the AP reported on the internal email.
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 Monday.
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.
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 because she was not authorized to speak to the press 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.
WHO has faced repeated criticism of its handling of the pandemic. 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.