BEIJING – A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry suggested on Thursday that the U.S. military might have brought the coronavirus to the city of Wuhan, which has been hardest hit by the outbreak, doubling down on a war of words with Washington.
China has taken great offense at comments by U.S. officials accusing it of being slow to react to the virus, which was first detected in Wuhan late last year, and of not being transparent enough.
On Wednesday, U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien said the speed of China’s reaction to the emergence of the coronavirus had probably cost the world two months when it could have been preparing for the outbreak.
In a strongly worded tweet, written in English on his verified account, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said it is the United States that lacks transparency.
“When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be U.S. army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! U.S. owe us an explanation!” Zhao wrote.
Zhao, an avid and often combative Twitter user, did not offer any evidence for his suggestion that the U.S. military might be to blame for the outbreak in China.
Earlier on Thursday, fellow ministry spokesman Geng Shuang criticized U.S. officials for “immoral and irresponsible” comments that blamed Beijing’s response to the coronavirus for worsening the global impact of the pandemic.
Asked about O’Brien’s comments, Geng told a daily news briefing in Beijing that such remarks by U.S. officials would not help U.S. epidemic efforts.
China’s efforts to slow the spread have bought the world time to prepare against the epidemic, he added.
“We wish that a few officials in the U.S. would at this time concentrate their energy on responding to the virus and promoting cooperation, and not on shifting the blame to China.”
The coronavirus emerged in December in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province, where around two-thirds of global cases so far have been recorded. But in recent weeks the vast majority of new cases have been outside China.
The Chinese authorities credit firm measures they took in January and February, including a near-total shutdown of Hubei, for preventing outbreaks in other cities on the scale of Wuhan and slowing the spread abroad.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has pointed to a decision to limit air travel from China at the end of January to fend off criticism that it responded too slowly to the disease. Critics say Trump played down the disease in public and the federal government was slow to roll out tests.
“Unfortunately, rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up,” national security adviser O’Brien said during a think tank appearance on Wednesday.
“It probably cost the world community two months to respond,” during which “we could have dramatically curtailed what happened both in China and what’s now happening across the world,” he said.
“We have done a good job responding to it, but … the way that this started out in China, and the way it was handled from the outset, was not right,” said O’Brien.
Wuhan reported five new cases on Friday, the second day in a row the tally has been fewer than 10, and no locally transmitted infections were reported in the rest of the country.
Wuhan registered the five new cases on Thursday, the National Health Commission said, down from eight cases Wednesday. The commission routinely reports new cases the day after the data is collected.
Excluding Wuhan, Hubei had reported no new infections for eight consecutive days.
The commission said on Thursday that China’s coronavirus epidemic had passed its peak, even as alarm over the virus intensified elsewhere.
The financial hub of Shanghai reported two new cases, while Beijing saw one, all imported by people traveling to China from affected areas abroad, the health authority said.
Those cases brought the total number of new infections in mainland China to eight on Thursday, down from 15 the previous day, and the lowest since the healthy authority started publishing nationwide figures in January.