World Trade Organization Cancels Meetings At Geneva Headquarters Following COVID-19 Case; WHO Ramps Up Safety Measures

The World Trade Organization’s director general Roberto Azevêdo announced on Tuesday that he was suspending all WTO meetings at its Geneva offices, following the confirmation of a COVID-19 case among staff. It was the first publicly-announced case of the novel coronavirus infection at a Geneva-based United Nations or UN-affiliated organization since the epidemic began, which has seen a the recent acceleration of reported cases in Switzerland.

Meanwhile, in a late-night internal circular, the World Health Organization told its Geneva staff that meetings with external participants would also be cancelled until 15 April, Health Policy Watch learned. WHO also announced a series of dramatic new measures to protect staff and the headquarters’ work premises from infection, including:

  • Self-monitoring by staff of their health status (e.g. temperature, cough) before coming to work;
  • Installation of thermoscanners in WHO’s two main entrances (i.e. Main entrance and D-Building);
  • Establishment of isolation areas;
  • Restriction of visitor access to the premises, and access to other doors to emergency staff;
  • Ramping up of virtual meetings, with technologies and support.

The circular said that while there had not been any confirmed COVID-19 cases in the building, the measures were being taken to proactively “to protect Staff as well as the working environment here at headquarters.”

In a press release posted on the WTO website this evening, Director-General Roberto Azevêdo said that he had informed WTO members that, as of 11 March, all meetings at the WTO will be suspended until 20 March. “The decision follows confirmation that one WTO staff member has contracted the COVID-19 virus,” the press release stated.

“We take the health of Secretariat staff and our members very seriously which is why we have taken this unprecedented step,” Azevêdo was quoted as saying. “We are monitoring the situation very closely and will take whatever measures are necessary to protect health and safety. We will monitor the situation constantly and review this decision before the end of next week.”

The WTO has a coronavirus Task Force in place.  In addition, WTO has been coordinating with other UN organizations in Geneva around the COVID-19 crisis, spokesman Daniel Pruzin told Health Policy Watch.

“I can tell you that we have an interagency network in place to monitor and respond to the coronavirus outbreak and that we are in very good contact with the network,” he said.

While not a United Nations or UN specialized agency, as such, the WTO sits on the United Nations Chief Executive Board (CEB), and is therefore part of the constellation of UN agencies, and global health and development NGOs that make up the hub of so-called “International Geneva.”

WHO did not respond last night to Health Policy Watch queries about new protocols for staff safety at its building, or about measures being taken elsewhere in Geneva’s UN system.

A WHO spokesman said only that: “The UN activated a Crisis Management Team (CMT) on the COVID-19 outbreak, led by Dr Mike Ryan, Executive Director of WHO Health Emergencies Programme as the Crisis Manager. The CMT brings together WHO, OCHA, IMO (International Maritime Organization), UNICEF, ICAO, WFP, FAO, the World Bank and others UN entities.”

As of noon Tuesday, some 476 COVID-19 cases had been reported in Switzerland by the Federal Office of Public Health.

New Infections in Italy, Switzerland and Europe Surging – But Republic of Korea Sees Dramatic Reductions 

COVID-19 cases began to spill over into Switzerland over the past week, largely as a result of the traffic between Italy and southern Switzerland’s Italian speaking Ticino region, where many people have work, study and family ties. Infections have gradually spread out throughout the country, including potential clusters of community transmission in Geneva as well as other expanding disease clusters in the Zurich area.

Over the past 24 hours nearly 100 new infections were reported in Switzerland – an increase of about 25%.  France also saw cases rising by about 30% in the last 24 hours to a total of 1,606 reported cases on Tuesday evening.

On Saturday, an employee of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, which is based just over the Geneva border in nearby France, was also reported to be infected.

“The infected person was in close contact with a small number of colleagues. In accordance with procedures put in place in collaboration with its Host State expert authorities, CERN has implemented measures to quickly identify potential cases and limit the risk of infection on the CERN site,” a press release stated. The agency has suspended all work-related travel for employees, although it continues to host meetings onsite, however, of less than 100 people.

As cases in the UK rose to 382 total, British Health Minister Nadine Dorries announced she tested positive for the coronavirus Tuesday night. Dorries tweeted she was self-quarantining at home with her 84-year old mother – who had just began to cough and is getting tested tomorrow.

In Germany, the increase was more moderate with only about 130 new cases, for a total of 1,281.  Inconsistencies in testing protocols across Europe leave considerable uncertainty about what proportion of cases are actually being identified and reported, although it appears clear that patterns of community-wide transmission are now occurring in all three countries.

Latest COVID-19 data according to Johns Hopkins CSSE as of 6:53PM CET 10 March (1:53PM EST)- Note numbers are changing rapidly, this map has not been updated with the latest Switzerland cases.

In Italy on Tuesday, there were now 10,149 COVID-19 cases, an increase of nearly 3,000 infections over the day before, when the entire country went under lockdown by order of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. However in the Republic of Korea, only 35 new cases were recorded overnight, a striking indication that with tough measures, the epidemic could be brought under control.

In Iran, while reported infections still increased by nearly 1,000, that was a slower pace than in days before, offering some hope that the Islamic Republic might soon turn the corner on the epidemic as well.  Globally, there were now over 118,000 cases in 113 countries and self-administered territories.

Some 45 countries have enacted some form of travel restriction on entering and leaving the country. As virus transmission shifts to other global hotspots, more restrictions are being enacted on people transiting from outside of China such as Italy, Iran, S. Korea, Japan, and the United States.

In China, the number of new cases has slowed dramatically to only 20 in the past 24 hours. However, 17 new deaths were reported, indicating that some patients had died even after a long period of hospitalization.

Image Credits: Johns Hopkins CSSE.