China seizes on Trump comment US started working on coronavirus vaccine in January to deny cover-up claims

Simone McCarthy

China’s official media have again sought to defend Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus, seizing on Donald Trump’s comments that the US government had started working on a Covid-19 vaccine in early January.

In a series of articles and social media posts over the weekend, state media outlets used the statement to rebut charges that the virus had originated in the country and the authorities had failed to share early information with the rest of the world.

“This proves the novel coronavirus had been spreading in the United States before January 11, and Trump and some American politicians and media are lying,” People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, posted on its Weibo account on Saturday.

China is set to come under pressure on Monday when the World Health Assembly meets in Geneva.

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A coalition of countries is expected to call for an investigation into the source of the virus, which was identified in China late last year.

Though scientists agree that the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 probably came from bats and then crossed over to humans, possibly via an intermediary species, its exact origins and the circumstances of the animal-to-human transmission remain unclear more than four months after China first reported the outbreak to the World Health Organisation.

Both the US and China have sought to blame each other as existing frictions over trade, technology and civil liberties have spilled over into a row over the handling of the outbreak.

Trump and other US politicians, have suggested, without providing evidence, that the virus may have come from a laboratory in Wuhan, where the disease first emerged.

Some US politicians have also said Beijing should be liable for financial reparations for the damage to the global economy – an idea publicly supported by the president.

Trump has also sought to blame the extent of the spread of the disease on a lack of transparency from China.

Chinese officials did not confirm human-to-human transmission for three weeks after they first notified the WHO of the outbreak, though subsequent accounts and scientific reports have shown it was already clearly spreading at that time.

Chinese state media and a foreign ministry spokesman have also promoted a conspiracy theory that the virus may have been introduced to Wuhan by US service personnel taking part in last year’s military games.

Officials have also defended their record on sharing information and said there is no solid proof that the virus came from China.

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On Friday, Trump said scientists at the US National Institutes of Health began developing the first vaccine candidate on January 11 “within hours of the virus’s genetic code being posted online”.

“Most people never even heard what was going on January 11. And we were out there trying to develop a vaccine, not even knowing what we were up against,” he said.

China’s state media highlighted the timing and noted it was a day before the WHO announced that China had shared the genetic sequence.

However a group of researchers from Fudan University had separately uploaded the complete genome to an open global database on January 10.

Chinese media say Trump’s comments raised questions about where the virus came from. Photo: Reuters

“Trump’s words immediately sparked questions from netizens at home and abroad, where did the virus come from? Did the United States know about the virus early?” a Weibo page run by state broadcaster CCTV asked on Sunday.

An article in Global Times, a tabloid affiliate of People’s Daily, highlighted comments from web users who asked how the US could accuse China of hiding information.

“It’s worth noting that during the early part of this year, Trump has always played down the threat of this virus to the public,” the article said.

Another article, published on its English-language website, accused US politicians of “attempting to blame China for its own failures while having earlier knowledge of the impending epidemic”.

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