WASHINGTON (AP) – American officials believe that China has covered the extent of the coronavirus outbreak – and how contagious the disease is – to stock up on the medical supplies needed to respond to it, intelligence documents show.
Chinese leaders "intentionally concealed the seriousness" of the world pandemic in early January, according to a four-page intelligence report from the Department of Homeland Security dated May 1 and obtained by The Associated Press. The revelation comes when the Trump administration intensified its criticism of China, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying on Sunday that that country was responsible for the spread of the disease and should be held responsible.
The sharpest rhetoric coincides with government critics, saying that the government's response to the virus was slow and inadequate. President Donald Trump's political opponents have accused him of attacking China, a geopolitical enemy but a critical U.S. trading partner, in an attempt to deflect criticism at home.
Not classified, but marked as "for official use only", the DHS analysis says that while minimizing the severity of the coronavirus, China has increased imports and decreased exports of medical supplies. He tried to cover it up "by denying that there were export restrictions and overshadowing and delaying the supply of his trade data," the analysis said.
The report also says that China failed to inform the World Health Organization that the coronavirus "was a contagion" for much of January so that it could order medical supplies from abroad – and that its imports of face masks, surgical gowns and gloves increased sharply.
These conclusions are based on the 95% probability that changes in China in the behavior of imports and exports were not within the normal range, according to the report.
In a tweet on Sunday, the president seemed to blame US intelligence officials for not clarifying earlier how dangerous a potential coronavirus outbreak could be. Trump has been on the defensive about whether he did not act after receiving early warnings from intelligence officials and others about the coronavirus and its potential impact.
"Intelligence just informed me that I was correct and that they did not address the CoronaVirus issue until the end of January, just before banishing China from the US," Trump wrote without citing details. "Furthermore, they only spoke about the virus in a very non-threatening way, or in fact."
Trump speculated earlier that China may have triggered the coronavirus due to some kind of horrible "mistake". His intelligence agencies say they are still examining a notion put forward by the president and his aides that the pandemic may have resulted from an accident at a Chinese laboratory.
Speaking on ABC's "This Week" Sunday, Pompeo said he had no reason to believe the virus was deliberately spread, but added: "Remember, China has a history of infecting the world and has a history of functioning of low quality labs. "
"It is not the first time that we have a world exposed to viruses as a result of failures in a Chinese laboratory," said Pompeo. “And so, while the intelligence community continues to do its job, they must continue to do this and check that we are sure, I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan. "
The Secretary of State appeared to be referring to previous outbreaks of respiratory viruses, such as SARS, that started in China. His remark can be seen as offensive in China. Still, Pompeo repeated the same statement hours later, via a tweet on Sunday afternoon.
Speaking Sunday on Fox News Channel's "Sunday Morning Futures", Senator Ted Cruz, Texas, echoed that sentiment, saying he believes China "is the most significant geopolitical threat to the United States in the next century".
“The communist government in China has a huge responsibility, a huge direct blame for this pandemic. We know they covered it up, ”said Cruz. “If they had behaved responsibly and sent health professionals and quarantined those infected, there is a real possibility that this could have been a regional outbreak, not a global pandemic. And the hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide are, in a very real sense, the direct responsibility of the lies of the Chinese communist government. "
AP diplomatic writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.