Azar Says U.S. Might Have 'Snuffed Out' COVID-19 if it Emerged There First

Secretary of Health Alex Azar attacked the Chinese response to the COVID-19 coronavirus during a speech in Taiwan on Tuesday, suggesting that had the pandemic originated in the U.S. it may have been "snuffed out" before becoming a global crisis.

Azar made the remarks during this week's visit to the democratic island nation, which comes at a time of heightened tension between the U.S. and China over coronavirus and a range of other issues.

Azar used the visit to express U.S. support for Taiwan's continued freedom plus praise its democracy, and laud the island's record in combating its own coronavirus outbreak.

Despite its proximity to and close ties with China, Taiwan quickly brought its outbreak under control and has reported just 477 infections and seven deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

But despite its success, Taiwan was not granted observer status at the World Health Assembly meeting in May which was dominated by the pandemic. The World Health Organization, under pressure from Beijing, refused to allow Taipei to take part despite pressure from the U.S. and other democratic allies.

Taiwan is a flashpoint for U.S.-Chinese relations. Beijing considers the island a wayward province and has vowed to bring it under Chinese Communist Party control, whether through diplomacy or by force.

The U.S. has backed Taiwan via weapons sales and is legally bound to help defend the island against Chinese invasion, though Washington, D.C. does not officially recognize Taiwan per longstanding policy.

On Tuesday, Azar said he brought "greetings from a great friend of Taiwan—President Donald J. Trump." He praised the island nation as a "shining star in the Indo-Pacific and a treasured friend of the United States."

Azar then pivoted to attacking China's response to the coronavirus pandemic. Trump—who initially praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for his attempt to stop COVID-19's spread—has pivoted to blaming Beijing for the pandemic and the subsequent U.S. deaths and economic crisis.

Beijing is accused of failing to adequately warn the international community of the threat posed by the outbreak in the central city of Wuhan, misrepresenting its number of infections and deaths, pressuring the WHO to underplay the severity of the outbreak, and running a broad disinformation campaign to absolve itself of blame and malign the U.S. and its democratic allies.

"The Chinese Communist Party has had the chance to warn the world and work with the world on battling the virus," Azar said. "But they chose not to, and the cost of that choice mounts higher every day."

"I believe it is no exaggeration to say that if this virus had emerged in a place like Taiwan or the United States, it might have been snuffed out easily," he added. "The issue is not which country is the source. The issue is how that country responds."

The U.S. quickly became the epicenter of the outbreak, and has so far recorded 5,094,565 cases and 163,465 deaths—the highest tolls in the world.

The Trump administration has been widely criticized for bungling its own response, with the president dismissing the danger, giving misleading medical advice, spreading conspiracy theories, publicly clashing with medical advisers and governors, and being accused of politicizing the crisis ahead of the November presidential election.

Still, many other nations have also suggested that China was too slow to warn the world of the danger. A host of nations have demanded an international probe into the origins and course of the pandemic, to which Xi eventually agreed but without committing to a specific timeframe.

"The People's Republic of China did not live up to the binding obligations that had under the International Health Regulations, betraying the cooperative spirit we need for global health," Azar said.

Trump has likewise been accused of abandoning the multilateral approach to the pandemic, first attacking and then withdrawing the U.S. from the WHO accusing the United Nations body of kowtowing to Chinese pressure. Critics and U.S. allies lamented Trump's decision, stressing that in the midst of a pandemic the world needed cooperation and U.S. leadership.

Nonetheless, Azar stressed the need for clear communication on the world stage. "You can't get anywhere without transparency," he said, though Trump has also mooted reducing the number of coronavirus tests conducted so as to cut confirmed infection numbers.

"How can the world possibly work together to prevent, contain and combat viruses unless we're willing to share information about these threats with each other?" Azar said.

Alex Azar, Taiwan, China, coronavirus, US, speech
Health and Human Rights Services Secretary Alex Azar makes a speech at the public health college of the National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan on August 11, 2020. PEI CHEN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

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