Coronavirus: Donald Trump returns to blaming Beijing for the pandemic, accusing it of a cover-up

Owen Churchill

In his strongest terms yet, US President Donald Trump blamed the Chinese government on Thursday for the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic, as he sought to build distance between his presidency and the outbreak’s devastating toll on the US economy.

“The world is paying a very big price for what they did,” Trump said at a White House briefing, accusing China of covering up the outbreak’s early stages.

“If people would have known about it … it could have been stopped right where it came from: China,” he said.

Trump has pivoted this week to emphasising the virus’ origins in response to Chinese diplomats’ amplification of conspiracy theories that the contagion was brought to Wuhan by US troops last year. Trump’s repeated use of the term “Chinese virus” since Monday has been criticised as fuelling racism against those of Chinese and East Asian descent.

During a news briefing which ran for more than an hour despite being attended by a reduced roster of the coronavirus response task force, Trump did not mention the outbreak’s human toll in the US, now at more than 10,000 confirmed cases and at least 150 deaths.

Instead, he focused on the economic fallout caused by the pandemic, which has sent US stock markets plummeting close to where they stood at the start of his presidency.

In the wake of China’s missteps, Trump said, “the whole world, almost, is inflicted with this horrible virus and it’s too bad because we never had an economy as good as a few weeks ago”.

Authorities in China, which this week reported no new locally transmitted cases for the first time, have been condemned over their quashing of early attempts by medical staff to raise the alarm over the then-unknown novel coronavirus, and for ordering medical labs to cease testing contagion specimens.

The South China Morning Post previously reported that the country’s first confirmed case had been traced back to mid-November.

Trump on Thursday appeared to cast doubt on the veracity of China’s recent report of no new cases: “Who knows, but I hope it’s true.”

The outbreak’s epicentre, once in Hubei province where the contagion first took hold, now lies in Europe; on Thursday, Italy’s death toll overtook China’s, pushing global fatalities to over 9,600. Infecting some 227,000 people to date, the disease’s growing global spread is fuelling urgency within governments – including that of the US – to bolster testing capacities and develop treatment.

China’s first confirmed Covid-19 case traced back to November

Trump on Thursday announced moves to scale back pharmaceutical regulatory burdens to expedite the development of therapeutics and a vaccine for the disease, and touted a number of drugs currently used for other applications that could be deployed to treat Covid-19.

Steven Hahn, head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), echoed the president’s commitment to provide regulatory flexibility, but emphasised that the repurposing of other drugs would still require a “large, pragmatic clinical trial”.

Trump leaving at the end of the coronavirus briefing at the White House on Thursday. Photo: AP

“Let me make one thing clear,” he said. “The FDA's responsibility to the American people is to ensure that products are safe and effective.”

Clinical trials on a vaccine have already begun in the US and are expected to take at least 12 months to complete, Hahn said.

While he lavished praise on himself and top officials in his administration, Trump also took the opportunity on Thursday to lash out at some familiar targets, accusing those in the media who had been critical of his administration of “siding with China”.

WHO official denounces stigmatising language like Trump’s

He joked that he would like to expand social distancing protocol in the White House briefing room so that only two or three reporters who covered him favourably remained.

Earlier this week, Beijing announced it was revoking the press credentials of all American journalists working at the mainland Chinese bureaus of three major US newspapers, amid an escalating spat over the two countries’ respective regulations governing each other’s foreign correspondents.

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