The US and China appeared headed towards a fresh row on Friday after Washington’s top diplomat Mike Pompeo for the second day running referred to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus” – ignoring pleas from Beijing and world health officials for the public to avoid using names for the Covid-19 disease that could incite racial discrimination.
Pompeo's new nomenclature for the virus coincided with a rising tide of criticism that President Donald Trump’s administration is facing over its response to community transmission of the virus in the United States.
Questions have been swirling over a range of policy hiccups, including a shortage of diagnostic test kits in the US and increasing signs that the Trump administration’s bullish view of the effectiveness of travel restrictions in the early days of the outbreak may have been off the mark.
Pompeo’s use of the term also follows assertions by Chinese officials this week that the virus did not originate in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, as has been widely presumed. The virus has spread far and wide since infections began in the city in December, with the number of people sickened by it worldwide surpassing 100,000 on Friday.
In interviews with CNBC and Fox News on Friday, Pompeo referred to the virus as the “Wuhan virus”. In response to a question by Pete Hegseth – the host of the Fox and Friends morning talk show closely followed by Trump – the secretary of state said “as a first matter, the Chinese Communist Party has said that this is where the virus started”.
“Don't take my word for it. Take theirs,” he said. In the CNBC interview, Pompeo rejected China’s statements that the virus may have originated in a location other than Wuhan, where most of the nearly 100,000 infections worldwide have occurred.
On Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said it was “highly irresponsible” for anyone to refer to the pathogen as the “China coronavirus” or the “Wuhan coronavirus”. He did not reference Pompeo’s use of the “Wuhan virus” term in a press conference on Thursday but castigated media outlets for using those terms.
“By calling it ‘China virus’ and thus suggesting its origin without any supporting facts or evidence, some media clearly want China to take the blame and their ulterior motives are laid bare,” he said. “The epidemic is a global challenge.” It has not been established conclusively that the virus originated in China, he said.
In the early days of the outbreak, news outlets including the South China Morning Post referred to the coronavirus as the “China coronavirus” or the “Wuhan coronavirus” – taking cues from previous epidemics whose names were based on where most of the infections occurred, such as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.
That changed when the World Health Organisation issued fresh guidance on the proper referencing of the coronavirus and the disease it causes. The UN agency on February 11 declared that the disease would be officially called Covid-19 and the virus that caused it SARS-CoV-2.
Elsewhere, the US government remained under pressure over its limited diagnostics capacity. Officials had initially aimed to have 1 million coronavirus tests ready by the end of this week. But that goal has now been extended. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Friday said he expected 4 million test kits to be ready for roll-out next week.
Azar spoke as President Trump signed the US$8.3 billion emergency spending bill to deal with the coronavirus. The bill includes over US$3 billion for research and development of vaccines, antivirals and test kits, US$2.2 billion for public health measures to contain the epidemic and US$1.25 billion to aid other countries in combating the contagion.
“We’re signing the 8.3 billion. I asked for two and a half, and I got 8.3, and I’ll take it,” Trump said as he signed the bill in the White House diplomatic reception room. “We are doing very well but it [the virus] is an unforeseen problem. It came out of nowhere and we are taking care of it,” he said.
Also on Friday, Larry Kudlow, the director of Trump’s National Economic Council, defended his assertion late last month that the administration’s containment policy – mainly its travel restrictions – meant “we have contained this”.
“I won’t say airtight, but pretty close to airtight. We have done a good job in the United States,” he said on CNBC on February 25. The number of new cases has spiked significantly since then amid the onset of community transmission in the US, meaning multiple cases occurring without any clear source of infection.
Asked about his earlier comments, Kudlow said in Friday’s interview with CNBC that “regarding the containment issue I will still argue to you that this is contained. It can’t be air tight”.
As of noon on Friday, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said there were 164 US coronavirus infections, with 11 deaths. Nineteen states have reported infections so far.
The Trump administration is seeking to drastically cut the usual 18-month timeline for the development of a vaccine. In his CNBC interview on Friday, Pompeo said it was “incredibly frustrating” that Beijing was not sharing more data on the virus that was vital for such efforts.
Azar told reporters in press briefings on January 27 and February 7 that he had asked Beijing for permission to send a team of American medical experts into China to help Chinese public health authorities trying to bring the outbreak under control.
“We have made the request now for almost a month,” Azar said, adding that the team of 13 US experts he had proposed sending included virologists, drug development experts and epidemiologists.
On February 16, China admitted an international team of 25 medical experts, including two from the US.
Additional reporting by Robert Delaney
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