(Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday again pushed China to provide the world access to its virology labs in Wuhan, saying the world needed to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic originated and Beijing had an obligation to be transparent.
Ties between the United States and China have significantly deteriorated since the eruption of the coronavirus outbreak, which has now killed more than 200,000 people around the world, including more than 58,000 in the United States, after originating in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
Washington and Beijing have been trading insults and accusations over the handling of the pandemic, with Pompeo last week saying United States "strongly believed" China failed to report the outbreak in a timely manner and then covered up how dangerous the respiratory illness caused by the virus was.
"We still haven't gained access, the world hasn't gained access to the WIV (Wuhan Institute of Virology) there. We don't know precisely where this virus originated from," Pompeo told a news conference at the State Department, and added that U.S. concerns over the safety of Chinese labs persisted.
"There are multiple labs that are continuing to conduct work, we think, on contagious pathogens inside of China today and we don't know if they are operating at a level of security to prevent this from happening again," Pompeo said.
"The Chinese Communist Party tells us they want to be our partners. ... There is a continuing obligation on the part of reliable partners to share this information," he added.
President Donald Trump said on April 15 his government was investigating whether the coronavirus outbreak originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, where the virus emerged. Those claims have no basis in fact, the head of the lab told Reuters on Tuesday.
Pompeo was asked in a Fox News interview about a letter sent to him on Tuesday from Democratic Senators Chris Murphy and Ed Markey seeking information about his department's response to reported warnings about safety at WIV and recommending increased U.S. engagement and technical assistance.
A Washington Post opinion column this month said the U.S. State Department in 2018 warned in diplomatic cables about safety and management weaknesses at a Wuhan laboratory.
"We'll do our best to respond to those two senators," he said.
"The United States for a long time, and continuing today, tries to help countries around the world who are conducting research on highly contagious pathogens," Pompeo said.
"We do this, not only in China, but we try to bring our expertise from our National Institutes of Health, from our CDC to precisely prevent something like this."
Reuters reported in March that ahead of the coronavirus outbreak the Trump administration cut staff by more than two-thirds at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention office in China, as part of a larger rollback of U.S.-funded health and science experts on the ground there.
In their letter, the senators asked why, in the context of alarming reports about WIV, "were key CDC staff positions, including the resident CDC advisor position in Beijing, eliminated in 2018 and 2019?"
Most scientists now say the new coronavirus originated in wildlife, with bats and pangolins identified as possible host species.
Yuan Zhiming, a director at the Wuhan Institute of Virology has rejected theories that the lab had accidentally released a coronavirus it had harvested from bats for research purposes.