On March 16, 2020, then-President Donald Trump described Covid-19 as “the Chinese Virus,” sparking anger from the Chinese government, as well as from Americans — including CDC scientists — concerned about both inaccuracy and bigotry.
In the following months, Trump’s political allies and appointees, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, adopted similar language, often referring to Covid-19 as “the Wuhan virus” and saying without offering evidence — and in apparent contradiction of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment and the scientific consensus at the time — that the virus had originated in a Chinese lab. State Department emails from last spring, obtained and published by American Oversight, reveal that a Chinese official had warned that such rhetoric could narrow cooperation between the two countries.
Trump and Pompeo’s offensive labeling of the virus was a precursor — and catalyst — to a rise in anti-Asian sentiment and attacks, an issue separate from ongoing questions related to the Chinese government’s lack of transparency, which makes investigating the lab-leak theory difficult. The Biden administration has recently pushed for national intelligence agencies and the international community to investigate the origin of the coronavirus, with renewed attention on the theory that it may have entered the human population after a lab accident in a research center in Wuhan, China. Although a group of scientists convened by the World Health Organization concluded this year that a lab accident was extremely unlikely, American officials have suggested that the team may not have had complete access to data.
The newly uncovered emails add color to the U.S.-China relationship during the first months of the pandemic.
In an email from March 26, 2020, Jonathan Fritz, the deputy assistant secretary for east Asian and Pacific affairs, relayed complaints from an official at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Fritz wrote that the Chinese official called because of “remarks yesterday that referred to Wuhan virus and the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party] malign influence. He said if these comments were not taken down, they would narrow the window for Covid cooperation.”
Fritz continued: “Chinese companies were calling MFA to ask if they should export PPE to USA. MFA would like to respond favorably, but could only do so if the bilateral environment was more favorable. He also warned that the Chinese people’s anger could result in spontaneous manifestations.”
Later that day, an individual whose name has been redacted forwarded Fritz an article from the Chinese state-run newspaper the Global Times that condemned Pompeo’s call for leaders to refer to the novel coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus.” Fritz responded, “Perfect for pointing out how GT and others have scrubbed their past use of Wuhan pneumonia or Wuhan virus from their own sites. Pot calling kettle black…”
The records also include other emails, including a message from January 2020 about the Chinese consulate in New York’s interest in an early vaccine pitch as well as a March 2020 email in which David Feith, a senior adviser at the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, discussed how Covid-19 could be spread by those who are asymptomatic.
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