As Italy and Iran join South Korea and China in introducing stringent measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the director general of the World Health Organization has said the international community needs to act quickly before the “window of opportunity” to contain the virus closes completely.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters on Friday that “this outbreak could go in any direction.”

“If we do well, we can avert any serious crisis, but if we squander the opportunity then we will have a serious problem on our hands.”

50,000 Italians have been ordered to stay indoors in eleven different northern towns, with two people dying there since Friday. Over one hundred cases have been reported already in Italy, most of them near Milan, with people in affected areas facing weeks of lockdown.

Many schools and churches are now closed, with four Serie A games and Milan Fashion Week also cancelled by the government as it steps up efforts to contain the sudden spike in reports.

Iran has so far suffered eight deaths from the coronavirus, the most of any country outside China. The overall number of confirmed cases is thought to be 43.

The outbreak in Iran began in Qom, a popular pilgrimage site, but quickly spread to other cities including Tehran. Iraq, Turkey and Pakistan all closed their land borders with Iran as a result of the outbreak there, whilst Afghanistan suspended all travel to the country.

Meanwhile, South Korea has raised its coronavirus alert to the highest level, with six deaths and more than 600 people infected.

President Moon Jae-in said that South Korea is at “a grave turning point” in its fight to contain the virus, whilst health officials have identified a religious group and a hospital as being at the centre of their concerns.

Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo has seen more than 110 people, including nine staff, infected by the virus, whilst a further 329 confirmed cases have been linked to the religious sect Shincheonji in the city of Daegu. The group claims some 250,000 members, all of whom have reportedly been warned to take the necessary precautions.

Expressing alarm at the rapidly growing number of cases with no clear link to China, Dr. Tedros of the WHO remains most concerned about a potential outbreak in Africa, where already one person in Egypt has died from the virus.

“Our biggest concern continues to be the potential for Covid-19 to spread in countries with weaker health systems,” he said. “We are working hard to prepare countries in Africa for the potential arrival of the virus.”

There have been almost 2,600 deaths and 80,000 confirmed cases of the virus around the world, with the vast majority still centering on China.