DONALD TRUMP said on Thursday (30) he was confident the coronavirus may have originated in a Chinese virology lab, but declined to describe the evidence, ratcheting up tensions with Beijing over the origins of the deadly outbreak.
The US president did not mince words at a White House event, when asked if he had seen evidence that gave him a “high degree of confidence” the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
“Yes, yes I have,” he said, declining to give specifics. “I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that.”
The Chinese state-backed Wuhan Institute of Virology has dismissed the allegations, and other US officials have downplayed their likelihood. Most experts believe the virus originated in a market selling wildlife in Wuhan and jumped from animals to people.
Trump has shown increasing frustration with China in recent weeks over the pandemic, which has cost tens of thousands of lives in the United States alone, sparked an economic contraction and threatened his chances of re-election in November.
The president, however, did not directly blame his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
“I don’t want to say that, I don’t want to say that, but certainly it could have been stopped,” he said. “It came out of China and it could have been stopped and I wish they had stopped it and so does the whole world wish they had stopped it.”
Reiterating that China should have contained the outbreak, Trump said: “They were either unable to, or they chose not to. And the world has suffered greatly.
“They either didn’t do it and you know they couldn’t do it from a competent standpoint or they let it spread and I would say probably it got out of control.”
The Republican president said previously his administration was trying to determine whether the coronavirus emanated from the Wuhan lab, following media reports it may have been artificially synthesized at a China state-backed laboratory or perhaps escaped from such a facility.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, said it was not known whether the virus came from the lab.
“We don’t know if it came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. We don’t know if it emanated from the wet market or yet some other place. We don’t know those answers,” Pompeo said in an interview with Newsradio 1040.
The spread of the coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease Covid-19, has contributed to a deepening rift between the Trump administration and China.
Beijing has suggested the U.S. military might have brought the virus to China and Trump has said China failed to alert the world to the risks in a timely and transparent fashion.
Trump also said on Thursday it was possible that China either could not stop the spread of the coronavirus or let it spread. He declined to say whether he held Chinese President Xi Jinping responsible for what he feels is misinformation about the emergence of the coronavirus.
Trump said of China’s efforts to get to the bottom of how the virus emerged: “At least they seem to be trying to be somewhat transparent with us.
“But we’re going to find out. You’ll be learning in the not-too-distant future. But it’s a terrible thing that happened — whether they made a mistake or whether it started off as a mistake and then they made another one. Or did somebody do something on purpose?”
Trump told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday that he was looking at different options in terms of consequences for Beijing over the virus. “I can do a lot,” he said.
Trump made it clear that his hard-fought trade deal with China was now of secondary importance to the coronavirus pandemic and he threatened new tariffs on Beijing, as his administration crafted retaliatory measures over the outbreak.
His sharpened rhetoric against China reflected his growing frustration with Beijing over the pandemic, which has cost tens of thousands of lives in the US alone, sparked an economic contraction and threatened his chances of re-election in November.
Two US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a range of options against China were under discussion.
“There is a discussion as to how hard to hit China and how to calibrate it properly,” one of the sources said as Washington walks a tightrope in its ties with Beijing while it imports personal protection equipment (PPE) from there and is wary of harming a sensitive trade deal.
Trump made clear, however, that his concerns about China’s role in the origin and spread of the coronavirus were taking priority for now over his efforts to build on an initial trade agreement with Beijing that long dominated his dealings with the world’s second-largest economy.
“We signed a trade deal where they’re supposed to buy, and they’ve been buying a lot, actually. But that now becomes secondary to what took place with the virus,” Trump told reporters. “The virus situation is just not acceptable.”
Asked whether he would consider having the US stop payment of its debt obligations as a way to punish Beijing, Trump said: “Well, I can do it differently. I can do the same thing, but even for more money, just by putting on tariffs. So, I don’t have to do that.”
The US president also stepped up its attack on WHO. “I think that the World Health Organization should be ashamed of themselves because they are like the public relations agency for China,” said Trump.
“They shouldn’t be making excuses when people make horrible mistakes, especially mistakes that are causing hundreds of thousands of people around the world to die.”