US President Donald Trump on Wednesday called the coronavirus pandemic the worst “attack” the country had ever experienced and blamed China for not stopping it, amid a deepening war of words between the United States and China over the virus.
“This is worse than Pearl Harbor. This is worse than the World Trade Center,” Trump said at a White House event, referring to the Japanese bombing of the US airbase that brought the Americans into the second world war and the September 11 attacks.
“It should have never happened,” Trump continued. “It could have been stopped at the source. It could have been stopped in China. It should have been stopped right at the source, and it wasn’t.”
Trump’s administration has become increasingly critical of China as the death toll in the US has risen, blaming it for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and demanding the country be more transparent about its handling of the disease, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
More than 255,000 people around the world have now died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, including at least 70,000 in the US.
Most experts believe the virus originated in a Wuhan food market that also sold illegal wildlife and jumped from animals to people, but both Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have said there is significant evidence it came from a laboratory.
Pompeo also repeated his criticisms of China on Wednesday.
“They knew. China could have prevented the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. China could have spared the world descent into global economic malaise,” Pompeo told a State Department news conference.
“China is still refusing to share the information we need to keep people safe.”
Earlier, the government in Beijing pushed back against the US claims, singling out previous weekend remarks made by Pompeo on the origins of the virus.
“I think this matter should be handed to scientists and medical professionals, and not politicians who lie for their own domestic political ends,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters on Wednesday.
“Mr Pompeo repeatedly spoke up but he cannot present any evidence. How can he? Because he doesn’t have any,” Hua added.
On Sunday, Pompeo said there was “a significant amount of evidence” the virus emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, having said the previous Thursday it was not known whether it came from the lab, a so-called wet market, or some other place.
On Wednesday, Pompeo said the US did not have certainty, but there was significant evidence it came from the lab.
“Every one of those statements is entirely consistent,” he said. “We are all trying to figure out the right answer. We are all trying to get the clarity.”
The Chinese state-backed Wuhan Institute of Virology has said the virus did not originate there.
The European Union’s ambassador to China, Nicolas Chapuis, on Thursday told reporters that the increasing tension between the US and China was a problem for all sides and not helpful at a time when international cooperation was crucial to dealing with the virus.
Domestic critics of President Donald Trump, including some former officials and academics, have said that while China has much to answer for in terms of its actions in the early days of the outbreak, the administration is seeking to deflect attention from what they see as a slow US response.
Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, said in an interview published on Monday that the best evidence showed the virus was not made in a lab, but appeared to have “evolved in nature and then jumped species”.
Trump was asked last week if he had seen evidence that gave him a “high degree of confidence” that the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and replied that he had, although he declined to give specifics.
Pompeo said China was still withholding virus samples he said were needed for global vaccine research.
“They continue to be opaque, they continue to deny access for this important information that our research or epidemiologists need,” he said.
“People say, well America is bullying the Chinese. We are demanding of them only what we demand of every nation: be transparent, be open, be a reliable partner, the very things that they say. The Chinese say they want to cooperate. Great. Cooperation is about action.”
He also took aim at the World Health Organization (WHO).
“It’s not only that they didn’t enforce … the WHO needs to still demand that there be an investigation,” Pompeo said, adding that WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus needed to be “just as concerned as the United States … and other countries that we still don’t have access to the answers we need.”
In an opinion article published in the Washington Post, China’s ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, said “blaming China will not end this pandemic”.
“It is time to end the blame game. It is time to focus on the disease and rebuild trust between our two countries,” he said.