White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien on Wednesday criticized China’s response to the coronavirus as a cover-up and said that Beijing cost the global community two months to respond to the outbreak.
“Unfortunately, rather than use best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up,” O’Brien said in remarks at the Heritage Foundation. “There’s lots of open source reporting from Chinese nationals that the doctors involved were either silenced or put in isolation … so the word of this virus could not get out.”
“It probably cost the world community two months to respond,” O’Brien continued.
O’Brien appeared to be referring to reports about Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor who tried to raise alarm about the coronavirus outbreak, being targeted by police in an effort to silence him.
The virus, which originated in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, has now spread to more than 100 countries and territories and sickened upward of 1,000 people in the United States.
O’Brien said that if China had been cooperative at the beginning of the outbreak, the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) could have had teams on the ground in China earlier to analyze the virus’s sequence.
“I think we could have dramatically curtailed what happened in China and what’s now happening across the world,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien’s remarks came as the Trump administration faces scrutiny over its response to the virus, particularly with respect to a delayed rollout of tests for the disease.
O’Brien commended President Trump’s decision to suspend air travel from China, which he said “bought the United States six to eight weeks to prepare for the virus.” He also praised the work of Dr. Deborah Birx, the State Department’s global AIDS coordinator who has been moved to the White House to help lead the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus.
“This is a complicated issue,” O’Brien said. “Pandemic and epidemics are some of the greatest challenges we face as a country. I think we have done a good job responding to it.”
O’Brien said the U.S. is doing its best to work with China now in order to respond to the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus and urged the public to heed CDC advice about washing their hands, staying home if they feel sick and engaging in some “social distancing.”
The White House official’s remarks echoed those of other administration officials who have sharply criticized China over its response to the outbreak in recent days.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a CNBC interview last week that China had put the U.S. “behind the curve” in responding to the virus.
“Remember, this is the Wuhan coronavirus that’s caused this, and the information that we got at the front end of this thing wasn’t perfect and has led us now to a place where much of the challenge we face today has put us behind the curve,” he told CNBC on Friday.
“That’s not the way infectious disease doctors tell me it should work. It’s not the way America works with transparency and openness and the sharing of the information that needs to take place,” the secretary of State continued.
Pompeo and other Republicans have faced some backlash over their labeling of the virus as the “Wuhan” or “Chinese” coronavirus, with Chinese officials criticizing the label this week.
CDC Director Robert Redfield said Tuesday it was wrong to refer to the coronavirus as a “Chinese coronavirus,” noting while it first emerged in China it has since severely impacted countries such as South Korea and Italy.