US officials believe China covered up the extent of the coronavirus outbreak — and how contagious the disease is — to stock up on medical supplies needed to respond to it, intelligence documents show.
Chinese leaders "intentionally concealed the severity" of the pandemic from the world in early January, according to a four-page Department of Homeland Security intelligence report dated May 1 and obtained by The Associated Press.
The revelation comes as the Trump administration has intensified its criticism of China, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying Sunday that that country was responsible for the spread of disease and must be held accountable.
The sharper rhetoric coincides with administration critics saying the government's response to the virus was slow and inadequate. President Donald Trump's political opponents have accused him of lashing out at China, a geopolitical foe but critical U.S. trade partner, in an attempt to deflect criticism at home.
Not classified but marked "for official use only," the analysis states that, while downplaying the severity of the coronavirus, China increased imports and decreased exports of medical supplies. It attempted to cover up doing so by "denying there were export restrictions and obfuscating and delaying provision of its trade data," the analysis states.
The report also says China held off informing the World Health Organisation that the coronavirus "was a contagion" for much of January so it could order medical supplies from abroad — and that its imports of face masks and surgical gowns and gloves increased sharply.
Those conclusions are based on the 95% probability that China's changes in imports and export behavior were not within normal range, according to the report.
Trump has speculated that China could have unleashed the coronavirus due to some kind of horrible "mistake." His intelligence agencies say they are still examining a notion put forward by the president and aides that the pandemic may have resulted from an accident at a Chinese lab.
Speaking Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Pompeo said he had no reason to believe that the virus was deliberately spread. But he added, "Remember, China has a history of infecting the world, and they have a history of running substandard laboratories."
He cited poor safety and security at epidemiological laboratories, including in the city of Wuhan where the virus was first reported.
Former CIA director Pompeo said he agreed with the US intelligence community that the Covid-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified.
He also stressed that he had no reason to believe that the virus was deliberately spread but he ramped up already harsh US criticism of the Chinese for their response to the outbreak.
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"These are not the first times that we've had a world exposed to viruses as a result of failures in a Chinese lab. And so, while the intelligence community continues to do its work, they should continue to do that, and verify so that we are certain, I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan."
Pompeo appeared to be referring to previous outbreaks of respiratory viruses, like SARS, which started in China. But his remark may be seen as offensive in China given the history of US discrimination against the Chinese and people of Chinese origin dating to the 19th century.
As Pompeo pointed the finger at China, domestic US protests have been slammed by top officials for risking the health of vulnerable Americans.
White House coronavirus coordinator Dr Deborah Birx is calling it "devastatingly worrisome" to see protesters in Michigan and elsewhere not wear masks or practise social distancing as they demonstrate against stay-at-home orders.
Birx was responding to the hundreds of protesters who crowded the Michigan statehouse last week to push for a reopening of businesses.
She told Fox News Sunday that people "will feel guilty for the rest of our lives" if they pick up the virus because they didn't take precautions and then unwittingly spread it to family members who are especially vulnerable to severe illness due to pre-existing conditions or older age.
Protests took place in several states over the weekend amid growing frustration over the economic impact from stay at home orders during the coronavirus outbreak.
Birx says: "We need to protect each other at the same time we're voicing our discontent."