WASHINGTON • The Trump administration has stepped up its campaign of blaming China for the deadly coronavirus pandemic, with a top aide suggesting that Beijing sent airline passengers to spread the infection worldwide.
"The virus was spawned in Wuhan province (sic), patient zero was in November," White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said on ABC's This Week programme.
"The Chinese, behind the shield of the World Health Organisation (WHO), for two months hid the virus from the world and then sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese on aircraft to Milan, New York and around the world to seed that."
Milan and New York went on to become hot spots for the pandemic.
However, researchers at New York University determined last month that the explosion of Covid-19 cases in the New York City area resulted largely from infected patients who flew in from Europe - including Austria, Britain, France and the Netherlands.
"They could have kept it in Wuhan," Mr Navarro said. "Instead, it became a pandemic. That's why I say the Chinese did that to Americans and they are responsible."
Mr Navarro's comments add to the almost daily barrage of attacks by the United States on China, including suggestions that the virus escaped from a laboratory in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
Chinese diplomats and state media have waged their own campaign, pushing back against President Donald Trump's claims that Beijing had kept the world in the dark, while raising doubts about whether Wuhan was even the place where the virus first made the jump from animals to humans.
A social media posting published by the Communist Party-run People's Daily newspaper last Saturday cited Mr Trump's comments a day earlier that American scientists started work on a coronavirus vaccine as early as Jan 11 as evidence that the US had existing infections.
"This proves that the coronavirus had spread earlier than Jan 11," the posting said, adding that "Trump and some US politicians and media outlets have been lying".
While China did not release the virus' genome sequence to the WHO until Jan 12, the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre reportedly published similar information on open platforms a day earlier.
Mr Trump also qualified his remarks to say that vaccine work was begun "within hours of the virus' genetic code being posted online" - a line Chinese media omitted.