The US state of Missouri has sued China’s leadership over its handling of the coronavirus, prompting an angry rebuke from Beijing on Wednesday over the “absurd” claim.
Missouri is seeking damages over what it described as deliberate deception and insufficient action to stop the pandemic.
The first-of-a-kind state lawsuit comes amid calls in the US Congress to punish China and a campaign by President Donald Trump to focus on Beijing’s role as he faces criticism over his own handling of the crisis.
Missouri – led by Trump’s Republican Party – filed a lawsuit in a federal court seeking an unspecified amount in damages and an injunction on continuing actions by China that are alleged to include hoarding of protective equipment.
“The Chinese government lied to the world about the danger and contagious nature of COVID-19, silenced whistleblowers and did little to stop the spread of the disease,” Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said.
“They must be held accountable for their actions,” he said.
The lawsuit says Missouri and its residents suffered possibly tens of billions of dollars in economic damages, and seeks cash compensation. It also accuses the Chinese government of making the pandemic worse by “hoarding” masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE).
Missouri addressed the issue by suing the governing Communist Party, arguing that it is not formally an organ of the Chinese state.
Citing an estimate that Missouri may lose tens of billions of dollars due to the virus and action to prevent it, the lawsuit accused the Chinese Communist Party of being in “knowing, willful and in reckless disregard of the rights of the state and its residents”.
The lawsuit pointed to Chinese authorities’ early suppression of news of the virus when it broke out in Wuhan, including the silencing of whistleblowers.
It also noted that China initially said there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission.
China is already facing similar lawsuits filed in US courts on behalf of US business owners.
The lawsuit’s chances of success are far from certain as US law, under the principle of sovereign immunity, generally forbids court action against foreign governments.
A legal doctrine called sovereign immunity offers foreign governments broad protection from being sued in US courts, said Tom Ginsburg, a professor of international law at the University of Chicago.
Ginsburg said he thought the recent flurry of lawsuits against China serves a political end for Republican leaders facing an election in November.
“We are seeing a lot of people on the political right focus on the China issue to cover up for the US government’s own errors,” Ginsburg told Reuters news agency.
The virus first emerged late last year in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, and China’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday it had been sharing information with the US government since January 3.
“This so-called accusation, which has no factual and legal basis, is absurd,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular press briefing.
“Since the outbreak began, the Chinese government has always acted in an open, transparent and responsible way,” he said.
Despite Trump’s heavy criticism of China, his administration has been lukewarm about efforts to take action against Beijing, mindful that the Asian power is a significant source of masks and other medical supplies desperately needed by the US.
Under its conservative leadership, Missouri has imposed fewer COVID-19 restrictions than most US states, including allowing businesses to remain open as long as they limit the number of people present and ensure space between them.
Missouri as of Tuesday had reported 189 COVID-19 deaths, half of them in St Louis.