US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has accused China of destroying coronavirus samples as part of a cover-up during the early days of the outbreak, thereby “making it impossible to track the disease’s evolution”.
“Even after the [Chinese Communist party] did notify the WHO of the coronavirus outbreak, China didn’t share all of the information it had,” Mr Pompeo told reporters on Wednesday, referring to Beijing’s December 31 notification to the World Health Organization of a cluster of pneumonia cases.
“Instead it covered up how dangerous the disease is. It didn’t report sustained human-to-human transmission for a month until it was in every province inside of China, it censored those who tried to warn the world in order to halt the testing of new samples, and it destroyed existing samples,” he said.
Mr Pompeo’s attack on Wednesday adds fresh detail to repeated US accusations that China covered up the emergence of the coronavirus. Critics have also accused the Trump administration of seeking to distract from its handling of the pandemic at home.
WHO officials have praised China for its transparency and for its swift and comprehensive response to the virus, although US President Donald Trump has disputed that. Last week, Mr Trump suspended US funding for WHO, which he accused of being “China-centric”. He claimed it was “covering up” the spread of the virus and argued that China’s virus statistics could not be trusted.
Mr Pompeo added the Chinese Communist party had still not shared virus samples with anyone outside China, impeding efforts to understand how it emerged.
A researcher at Wuhan Institute of Virology, who declined to be named, told the Financial Times earlier this month that China had not shared samples of the live virus with the WHO as the country “had already published plenty of information” such as the genetic code of coronavirus.
The US state department has also been calling for greater access to information from China for weeks, amid concerns of lax standards of safety in longstanding research at Wuhan labs into coronaviruses in bats, which show a genetic similarity to the coronavirus that emerged late last year in humans.
“These labs are still open inside of China,” said Mr Pompeo, adding many laboratories such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology were studying complex pathogens. “It’s important that those materials are being handled in a safe and secure way such that there isn’t accidental release.”
The US and China have repeatedly traded blows over competing theories about the possible emergence of the disease, which was first logged in December in the city of Wuhan. It has since spread across the world, infecting more than 2.6m people and killing more than 180,000.
Mr Pompeo has on occasion referred to it as the “Wuhan virus”, and Mr Trump has termed it the “China virus” before dropping the incendiary terms. Claims circulating on social media have suggested the virus might have been deliberately engineered. While scientists have debunked those claims, they have not ruled out its accidental spread.
China at one point accused the US military of introducing the virus into its country and has also made a point of extending assistance to other countries to help combat the disease, including much-needed protective equipment lacking in the US, as it seeks to make up diplomatic ground in the wake of the outbreak.
The US is also increasing its international aid, although has stopped short of sending protective equipment given a dearth of supplies at home. Mr Pompeo said on Wednesday the US was giving another $275m to assist countries at risk from the disease, bringing the total US contribution to more than $775m. This includes help with testing, ventilators, health and sanitation.