July 27 (UPI) -- The coronavirus pandemic is "easily the most severe" health emergency the World Health Organization has ever faced and it is continuing to accelerate, the U.N. body's head said Monday.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, said during a media briefing on COVID-19 that Thursday will mark six months since he declared the coronavirus pandemic a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, the highest level of alarm he can issue under international law.
When he made the announcement on Jan. 30, there were fewer than 100 cases outside of China, where the virus first emerged in early December, but the virus has since spread across the globe infecting more than 16 million people of whom some 650,000 have died, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
Tedros said that in the past six weeks, the number of infections has roughly doubled.
"This is the sixth time a global health emergency has been declared under the International Health Regulations, but it is easily the most severe," he said.
To suppress the virus governments need to find, isolate, test and care for cases and trace and quarantine their contacts while the public needs to clean their hands, avoid crowded and enclosed areas and wear a mask.
"Where these measures are followed, cases go down. Where they're not cases go up," he said. "The bottom line is that one of the most fundamental ingredients for stopping this virus is determination, and the willingness to make hard choices to keep ourselves and each other safe."
Nearly half of all infections worldwide are located in three countries: the United States with more than 4.3 million cases, Brazil with nearly 2.5 million cases and India with 1.4 million infections.
Countries that have followed the WHO's advice have either prevented large-scale outbreaks, such as New Zealand and Rwanda, or have brought large outbreaks under control as are the cases of Canada, Germany, China and South Korea, he said.
Concerning travel bans, WHO Emergencies Programme Executive Director Mike Ryan said it is unsustainable for countries to keep their borders close due to stagnating economies, but that this preventative measure is not effective unless accompanied by others.
The virus is everywhere, he said, so countries need to reopen in a way that allows them to reengage in global commerce while minimizing the risks of virus transmission, though the WHO does believe international travel is possible.
"It is difficult to have a one size fits all [policy]," he said, adding that "continuing to keep international borders sealed is not necessarily a sustainable strategy for the world's economy, for the world's poor or for anyone else."
Tedros said he will reconvene the Emergency Committee later this week to re-evaluate the pandemic and to advise him on how the organization should move forward.
"We are not prisoners of the pandemic," he said. "Every single one of us can make a difference. The future is in our hands."