• BLOOMBERG, AFP-JIJI

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The State Department on Friday said it had new information suggesting the COVID-19 pandemic could have emerged from a Chinese laboratory and not through contact with infected animals, the latest salvo in the Trump administration’s efforts to pressure Beijing over the virus’s origins.

Specifically, the U.S. said it had obtained new evidence that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick in the fall of 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak in the surrounding city, with symptoms it said were consistent with either COVID-19 or common seasonal illnesses.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a statement that this contradicted reports that none of the staff at the institute had contracted COVID-19 or related viruses and urged the World Health Organization team that landed Thursday in Wuhan to “press the government of China” on the “new information.”

“Beijing continues today to withhold vital information that scientists need to protect the world from this deadly virus, and the next one,” Pompeo said.

The department said China’s lack of transparency about the pandemic’s origin more than a year ago, as well as efforts to mask early shortcomings in the country’s response to the outbreak, make it difficult to draw clear conclusions. But the brief, unsigned statement issued by the U.S. — less than a week before the end of the Trump administration — provided no data to back up its claims.

“The virus could have emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals, spreading in a pattern consistent with a natural epidemic,” according to the State Department. “Alternatively, a laboratory accident could resemble a natural outbreak if the initial exposure included only a few individuals and was compounded by asymptomatic infection.”

A State Department spokesperson declined to elaborate when asked for further comment.

China has repeatedly rejected charges that the virus might have emerged from a laboratory. The U.S. didn’t say how it obtained the new information about illnesses at the lab.

The comments, also noted in a State Department fact sheet, come as China faces criticism for initially preventing some members of a WHO mission from entering China as part of an effort to trace the origin of COVID-19, saying they hadn’t passed health screenings. While the experts were eventually granted clearance, China had already been criticized by the WHO for delaying the mission’s plans to visit the country.

China has been under scrutiny since the outbreak exploded in and around Wuhan, but the Trump administration also sought to pin more blame on authorities in Beijing after the pandemic took off in the U.S. and deaths soared. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo frequently refer to the illness as the “China virus,” “China plague” and “Wuhan virus.”

For its part, China is mounting a campaign to cast doubt the virus originated within its borders. State media have played up research suggesting that there were cases in Italy and the U.S. that pre-date those in Wuhan, and hinted that the pathogen could have entered the country via frozen food or packaging.

COVID-19 was first detected in Wuhan in late 2019 and has since billowed out across the world killing more than 2 million people so far, infecting tens of millions and eviscerating the global economy.

The WHO says establishing the pathway of the virus from animals to humans is essential to preventing future outbreaks.

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