The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed on Monday that 65 of its staff have tested positive for the coronavirus since the beginning of the year, with five new cases recorded in the last week alone.
The WHO’s technical lead for the COVID-19 response, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, said out of the 65 cases, 36 infections were reported among people who had been at the WHO headquarters since the beginning of the year.
She said the five new cases recorded last week were being investigated to determine whether they constitute a cluster or not. They were “linked within a team,” she added.
“We do have some cases in the last week that are linked together, we don’t know if they are an actual cluster,” Dr. Van Kerkhove said at the briefing also attended by director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
She said the five persons were doing well and have shown no symptoms of the disease, adding that additional measures have been put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Dr. Michael Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Program, added that “the cluster being investigated is the first evidence of potential transmissions on the site of WHO.”
The Associated Press was first to report on the coronavirus transmission at the WHO, citing an internal email sent to staff.
AP reported that 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.
“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.”
The report said Thomas’ email did not specify who was infected but quoted a WHO staffer with direct knowledge to the situation as saying the cluster included a member of the WHO director-general’s leadership team who is also an infection control specialist.
The report added that the senior manager reportedly held several in-person meetings at the WHO in November before testing positive last week.
According to the email obtained by the AP, 49 of the overall cases had occurred in the last eight weeks.
An estimated 2,400 people regularly work at the WHO’s seven-story headquarters overlooking Geneva. But most of them have been working from home while non-staff visitors have been required to wear masks, and access to the building has been curtailed.