Ira-Iraq virus
The body temperature of an Iraqi child returning from Iran is measured upon her arrival at the Najaf International Airport on February 21, 2020, after Iran announced cases of coronavirus infections in the Islamic republic. Image Credit: AFP

A surge in coronavirus cases and deaths in Iran is raising concern because the outbreak can't be traced directly back to China, the head of the World Health Organization said.

The cases, which suggest rapid spread in a country outside of the epidemic's center in China, are "very worrisome," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters Friday at a press briefing in Geneva.

The window of opportunity to stop the spread in countries outside the place where it began is "really narrowing," he said. "This outbreak could go in any direction." In Iran, there have been 18 cases and four deaths in just the past two days, Tedros said. One case was also reported Friday in Lebanon that was directly linked to Iran. Health experts are racing to limit new cases outside China, where severe quarantine measures are in place.

Tedros said the WHO is getting information from Iranian authorities, "but we have to engage them even more." "The concern is that we're seeing a very rapid increase in a matter of days," said Sylvie Briand, director of global infectious hazard preparedness at the WHO.