WASHINGTON — U.S. officials believe China covered up the extent of its coronavirus outbreak while stockpiling crucial medical supplies, slashing exports of surgical face masks and other items needed to respond to the pandemic, according to a U.S. intelligence document obtained by NBC News.
The report by the Department of Homeland Security intelligence service found that China initially delayed informing the World Health Organization that the coronavirus "was a contagion."
The Associated Press first reported on the DHS findings.
"We assess the Chinese Government intentionally concealed the severity of COVID-19 from the International community in early January while it stockpiled medical supplies by both increasing imports and decreasing exports," the May 1 DHS report states.
"We further assess the Chinese government attempted to hide its actions by denying there were export restrictions and obfuscating and delaying provision of its trade data," said the four-page analysis.
NBC News has previously reported that China sought to downplay the gravity of the virus. But the DHS report was the first account indicating China had moved to stockpile medical supplies and tried to obscure its actions by withholding trade data.
The intelligence document came to light as the Trump administration and China have clashed in a bitter war of words over Beijing’s role in the global outbreak. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that China was to blame for the spread of the deadly virus and that it must be held to account.
As the White House has blasted China, President Donald Trump has come under growing criticism from political opponents and public health experts who say his administration has been slow and disorganized in its response to the pandemic and has tried to deflect blame onto Beijing.
The DHS assessment, which was not classified, concluded China dramatically increased its imports of medical supplies while cutting exports of the same items — even as it played down the gravity of the epidemic to the rest of the world.
The DHS report said China substantially increased its import of surgical masks by 278 percent, surgical gowns by 72 percent, and surgical gloves by 32 percent and other items in January. However, in February, worldwide imports from China of critical medical supplies significantly declined, the report stated.
Based on a comparison of global trade data on 38 types of medical supplies from October 2019 to February 2020 to the previous five years, there is a 95 percent probability that the dramatic shift was not within the normal range, the report said.
China covered up its trade activity by "publicly denying it has ever imposed an export ban on masks and other medical supplies, and delaying the release of key trade data," according to the report.
China informed the WHO of the outbreak on Dec. 31. It contacted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Jan. 3 and publicly identified the pathogen as a novel coronavirus on Jan. 8.
Chinese officials muffled doctors who warned about the virus early on and repeatedly downplayed the threat of the outbreak. However, many of the Chinese government’s missteps appear to have been due to bureaucratic hurdles, tight controls on information and officials hesitant to report bad news. There is no public evidence to suggest it was an intentional plot to buy up the world’s medical supplies.
In a tweet on Sunday, the president appeared to blame U.S. intelligence officials for not making clearer sooner just how dangerous a potential coronavirus outbreak could be. Trump has been defensive over whether he failed to act after receiving early warnings from intelligence officials and others about the coronavirus and its potential impact.
“Intelligence has just reported to me that I was correct, and that they did NOT bring up the CoronaVirus subject matter until late into January, just prior to my banning China from the U.S.,” Trump wrote without citing specifics. “Also, they only spoke of the Virus in a very non-threatening, or matter of fact, manner.”
Trump had previously speculated that China may have unleashed the coronavirus due to some kind of horrible “mistake.” His intelligence agencies say they are still examining a notion put forward by the president and aides that the pandemic may have resulted from an accident at a Chinese lab.
Speaking Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Pompeo said he had no reason to believe that the virus was deliberately spread. But, he added, “Remember, China has a history of infecting the world, and they have a history of running substandard laboratories.”
“These are not the first times that we’ve had a world exposed to viruses as a result of failures in a Chinese lab,” Pompeo said. “And so, while the intelligence community continues to do its work, they should continue to do that, and verify so that we are certain, I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.”
The secretary of state appeared to be referring to previous outbreaks of respiratory viruses, like SARS, which started in China. His remark may be seen as offensive in China. Still, Pompeo repeated the same assertion hours later, via a tweet Sunday afternoon.
Experts say the virus arose naturally in bats, and make it clear that they believe it wasn’t human-made. Many virologists say the chance that the outbreak was caused by a lab accident is very low, though scientists are still working to determine a point at which it may have jumped from animals to humans.
Beijing has repeatedly pushed back on U.S. accusations that the outbreak was China’s fault, pointing to many missteps made by American officials in their own fight against the outbreak. China’s public announcement on Jan. 20 that the virus was transmissible from person to person left the U.S. nearly two months to prepare for the pandemic, during which the U.S. government failed to bolster medical supplies and deployed flawed testing kits.
“The U.S. government has ignored the facts, diverted public attention and engaged in buck-passing in an attempt to shirk its responsibility for incompetence in the fight against the epidemic,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang said Friday.