China Shrugs Off Report It Delayed Pandemic Announcement, Backs WHO in War of Words With U.S.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry official has denounced a report suggesting that Chinese President Xi Jinping and senior officials delayed informing the country of how serious the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic was, sitting on the news for six days while millions travelled domestically and internationally.

Spokesperson Zhao Lijian, who last month was criticized for blaming the U.S. Army for the pandemic, dismissed The Associated Press report as "unfair" at a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, according to Bloomberg.

Zhao said he had not read the report, but argued that China informed the World Health Organization of the situation and acted in a "timely manner."

The AP report said that more than 3,000 people were infected with the coronavirus during the six days of silence, when millions of Chinese people were traveling around the country and abroad for Lunar New Year. Xi informed the country of the severity of the threat on January 20. AP based the report on internal documents it obtained, which are based on retrospective infection data.

China has sought to escape blame for the pandemic. The country has now stemmed its own outbreak and is pivoting to assist other nations with medical personnel and supplies. But the Chinese Communist Party tried to silence whistleblowers who first warned of the virus in the central city of Wuhan and was slow in notifying the WHO of the situation.

A U.S. intelligence report sent to the White House last month also suggested that the regime concealed the true number of coronavirus deaths and infections.

At his Wednesday press conference, Zhao attacked President Donald Trump's decision to freeze U.S. funding for the WHO, warning the move will undermine global efforts to defeat COVID-19 coronavirus. Zhao said the president's decision will "weaken the WHO's capabilities and undermine international cooperation."

Zhao added that China has "serious concerns" over the freeze, though said Beijing "will as always support the WHO in playing an important role in international public health and global anti-epidemic response."

What may have fostered greater cooperation between Beijing and Washington has actually driven the two powers further apart, deepening existing animosities that have emerged as China becomes richer and more influential.

President Donald Trump initially praised the Chinese response to the crisis and lauded his close relationship with Xi, but has since pivoted to blaming Beijing for the pandemic. China, meanwhile, has framed the Trump administration's attacks as an effort to shift attention from its own inadequate response to the outbreak.

Trump announced Tuesday that the U.S. would freeze its contributions to the World Health Organization, the organization's largest donor, for 60 to 90 days while his administration investigates its role in the supposed coronavirus cover-up. The president has accused the WHO of allowing China to hide the true extent and severity of its coronavirus outbreak.

Asked whether China would cover the funding shortfall, Zhao said the country "will look into relevant issues according to the needs of the situation."

World Health Organization China
A picture taken on March 9, 2020 shows the sign of the World Health Organization with its Chinese name under at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. - The World Health Organization said on March 9, 2020 that more than 70 percent of those infected with the new coronavirus in China have recovered, adding that the country was "bringing its epidemic under control." FABRICE COFFRINI/Getty Images

The president has claimed that the WHO "really blew it" in its response to the crisis. The body raised the alarm at the end of January, declaring a "public health emergency of international concern." That was a day before Health Secretary Alex Azar announced a public health emergency, and weeks before Trump declared a national emergency.

A month later, the president was still claiming on Twitter that the COVID-19 outbreak "is very much under control in the USA." The U.S. now has the largest number of cases and deaths, 601, 472 and 24,429, respectively, according to Johns Hopkins University, of any nation.

Trump took particular issue with the WHO's opposition to his limited travel ban on flights from China. "Fortunately I rejected their advice on keeping our borders open to China early on," Trump tweeted. "Why did they give us such a faulty recommendation?"

The WHO argued at the time that such a measure would not help during a pandemic and may disrupt the movement of vital medical supplies.

The president has falsely claimed that he banned all travel from China, The Associated Press noted. The January 31 measure only temporarily blocked entry by foreign nationals who had traveled in China within the previous 14 days, and still allowed immediate family of U.S. citizens and permanent residents to enter.

Americans returning from China were allowed back after enhanced screening at selected ports of entry and for 14 days after, though asymptomatic infectees may not have been picked up in screening. Regardless, the virus was already in the U.S. by mid-January, spreading near unchecked through community transmission.

This article has been updated to amend the headline.