President Donald Trump's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, went even further on Wednesday. “Unfortunately, rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up," O'Brien said at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank in Washington. "There's lots of open-source reporting from China, from Chinese nationals, that the doctors involved were either silenced or put in isolation, or that sort of thing, so that the word of this virus could not get out. It probably cost the world community two months."
O'Brien said that if experts would have had those two months to get ahead of the spread of the virus, "I think we could have dramatically curtailed what happened both in China and what's now happening across the world."
O'Brien's remarks seemed to be aimed at countering a disinformation campaign that Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., says China's Communist Party is waging to blame the U.S. for the virus so it can dampen discontent in China, distract from true infection rates and “save face internationally.”
“The Chinese military portal Xilu.com recently published an article baselessly claiming that the virus is ‘a biochemical weapon produced by the U.S. to target China,’" Rubio wrote. China, however, says it is helping the international community battle the virus. U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that Beijing is working closely with other countries and have provided medical supplies to nations, including Korea, Japan and Italy.
“We are sending medical teams to countries that need that, and we will do whatever to join the international community to fight this virus ... because we have only one world, we need to join hands, we need to show solidarity.”
Rubio claims that besides China, disinformation is coming from Russia and Iran, the hardest-hit country in the Middle East. “In Qom, ground zero of Iran’s coronavirus outbreak, a prominent cleric accused the United States of introducing the virus ‘to damage (the city’s) culture and honor,’” Rubio wrote.
While Trump has lauded Chinese President Xi Jinping's work to respond to the virus, Trump himself has referred to “China’s Coronavirus situation." Trump has been criticized for playing down the virus, contradicting his own public health officials and concentrating more on the economic fallout from the outbreak. In a speech to the nation Wednesday night he referred to the “foreign virus” that “started in China.” (He also worked in some digs at Europe for letting it spiral out of control there.)
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.
Health professionals, who depend on China for access to the country, have publicly praised Beijing for its response, noting that it is difficult to spot a new virus during flu season when there are numerous alerts about atypical pneumonia and other respiratory problems.
On Capitol Hill, Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, praised China's work to control the spread of coronavirus. "They really have now got control of their outbreak," Redfield told the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Wednesday.
Chinese health officials informed the WHO about the new virus on Dec. 31. By Jan. 8, it had been identified as a new coronavirus, a large family that causes the common cold and more serious illnesses including SARS, which also began in China. By Jan. 12, Chinese scientists had sequenced the virus’ genetic makeup and shared it with WHO, drawing praise for their transparency and swift action.
O'Brien is right, however, in noting some missteps in China. The local Wuhan heath commission reported no new cases from Jan. 5-10 and again from Jan. 12-16. China’s Lunar New Year rush — the world’s largest annual human migration — began to get underway, with millions of people passing through Wuhan, a major transit hub. A recently submitted complaint to the country's National Health Commission alleged that during this period, officials with the Wuhan health commission told doctors they were not allowed to report about the new virus, letting patients wander around freely instead of being isolated.
China's foreign ministry has taken offense at people blaming China. After Pompeo called it the “Wuhan coronavirus,” the ministry's spokesman said the description was “despicable," disrespected science and stigmatized China.
Other Republicans also have specifically pointed how the outbreak was first reported in China. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., a dentist who is self-quarantined after coming into contact with an infected individual, called it “Wuhan virus" and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called it the “Chinese coronavirus."
On Thursday, leaders of the Asian Pacific American, Hispanic, Black and Native American congressional caucuses called on McCarthy and Gosar to apologize and noted that the CDC's chief medical officer, Dr. Mitch Wolfe, has said, “Stigma is the enemy of public health.”
Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in Washington and Edith Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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