US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has admitted the United States is not certain that COVID-19 came from a laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan, despite having said there was “significant evidence” to support the claim.
Renewing his criticism of China over the coronavirus pandemic, the senior Trump administration official said Beijing could have prevented the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people around the world by being more transparent.
But pressed on his previous comments during a news conference, he conceded officials did not have solid proof COVID-19 originated in a Chinese laboratory.
“We don’t have certainty,” he said.
“And there is significant evidence that this came from the laboratory. Those statements can both be true. I’ve made them both. Administration officials have made them. They’re all true.”
It comes after Sky News revealed UK officials believe it is highly likely the strain of coronavirus behind the global pandemic first passed from animals to humans naturally, unconnected to a laboratory.
Mr Pompeo’s comments were latest examples of the Trump administration attacking China for its handling of the COVID-19 disease caused by the new coronavirus, which has killed more than 255,000 people worldwide.
Critics say the administration is seeking to deflect attention from what they see as a slow response to the outbreak in the US – where more than 72,000 people with the disease have died and internal estimates reportedly indicate the daily death toll could reach 3,000 by June.
Mr Pompeo’s claim on Sunday that there was “a significant amount of evidence” that the new coronavirus emerged from a Chinese laboratory appeared to clash with his remarks last week – as well as those of the top US general on Tuesday – that it was still unknown where the virus emerged from.
“Let me just put this to bed. Your effort to try to find just – to spend your whole life trying to drive a little wedge between senior American officials… it’s just false,” he told a reporter, at times talking over her.
“Every one of those statements is entirely consistent. Every one of them. Lay them down together, there is no separation. We are all trying to figure out the right answer. We are all trying to get the clarity. There are different levels of certainty assessed at different places.”
Mr Pompeo also repeated his more general claims around China’s handling of the outbreak.
“China could have spared the world a descent into global economic malaise,” he said.
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“They had a choice but instead, instead, China covered up the outbreak in Wuhan.
“China is still refusing to share the information we need to keep people safe.”
It comes as Donald Trump announced the White House coronavirus task force would continue its work on the outbreak – a day after the saying its operations would be wound down.
“Because of this success, the Task Force will continue on indefinitely with its focus on SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN. We may add or subtract people to it, as appropriate. The Task Force will also be very focused on Vaccines & Therapeutics,” Mr Trump said in a series of tweets.