China seeks to dismiss US coronavirus claims as calls for compensation grow

Teddy Ng

China has issued a lengthy rebuttal dismissing claims it mishandled the Covid-19 pandemic and denying claims that there had been safety problems at a virology lab in Wuhan.

The rebuttal published by state news agency Xinhua follows an escalating war of words between China and the United States with President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying there is evidence to link the secure facility to an accidental leak of the coronavirus that causes the disease.

On Sunday, Science and Technology Daily published an interview with Yuan Zhiming, the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in which he outlined its security procedures, including the use of negative air pressure to prevent pathogens spreading to the outside.

There have also been growing calls from around the world for Beijing to investigate the origins of the coronavirus and pay damages to those affected.

Xinhua’s report said scientists were investigating the origins of the virus and added that even though it was first recorded in Wuhan that did not mean it had originated from there, comparing it to the emergence of HIV, which was first identified in America.

“Scientists around the world have started looking into the origin of the virus, and presented a lot of academic viewpoints about the new coronavirus,” the article published on Saturday said.

“Chinese scientists are also launching related studies, hoping to find out the origin and provide scientific evidence for future prevention work”.

It also rejected allegations that the coronavirus had been manufactured in the Wuhan lab – citing scientific assessments that it was not man-made – and insisted that it had not leaked accidentally.

It said the virology lab had been a joint venture with France and staff had been trained there and in the United States.

“Advanced biosecurity institutions such as the Wuhan virology lab have been operating safely and steadily,” the article said, adding that the lab had not known about the virus before the first samples were sent there for testing on December 30 and none of its staff had been infected.

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The Xinhua article also sought to dismiss 21 other allegations from the US, saying the decision to lockdown Wuhan on January 23 had sent a strong message to the world that the virus was dangerous.

It also said demands for compensation had no legal basis, stating: “China and the US do not have a mutual treaty and agreement on public health incidents.”

China has repeatedly rejected criticisms by the US in recent months, but observers said the lengthy rebuttal was a sign that relations between the two nations were severely deteriorating and likely to affect other areas, including trade negotiations.

“The most serious part of the current US-China relationship is pandemic-related policy and the ideological rivalry,” said Shi Yinhong, a Chinese government adviser and international relations professor at Renmin University.

“The confrontation is very intense, and we cannot foresee any possibility of relief.”

As well as linking the outbreak to the lab, Trump and other senior US officials have also accused China of withholding information and allowing the outbreak to escalate into a global pandemic.

China has said it shared information with other nations as soon as possible and said the US had been too slow to act and was to blame for the way the disease spread across America.

It has also dismissed calls to pay damages while foreign ministry officials have spread an unproven theory that the virus might have been brought to China by the US army.

Senior officials from both nations have tried to keep other aspects of their relationship on track, including the ongoing trade negotiations.

Australia ‘concerned’ over reports US may have leaked documents to boost Donald Trump’s Wuhan lab claims

In a phone call on Friday, Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin vowed to create “favourable conditions to implement the phase one trade deal” agreed in January under which China promised to buy US$200 million of American goods.

But Shi warned that the economic impact of the outbreak meant it would be difficult for China to live up to this part of the deal, and that could further damage relations.

“China does not have the ability to buy more products from the US to calm down the Covid-19 blame game,” he said, noting that China has purchased US$36 billion in US products in the first quarter.

“China can only buy US$100 billion this year even if it tries harder. Regardless of China's ability and needs, the amount is unreasonable.”

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