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US-China bickering threatens to hobble world's virus fight

Iain Marlow, Dandan Li and Peter Martin, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

HONG KONG -- The U.S. says China won't let its health workers help fight the virus. Beijing says they're welcome to come. The World Health Organization says nothing has been decided.

The confusion surrounding a planned WHO mission of experts to China shows how lingering mistrust between the world's biggest economies could hamper efforts to combat a pathogen quickly spreading across the globe. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the world's preeminent public health agency, has often played a key role coordinating and funding global efforts to contain past outbreaks, including of Ebola.

U.S. epidemiologists, virologists and medical doctors could assist China in measuring the effectiveness of their response, said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. They could also help prepare for a broader outbreak, provide technical advice, improve the bio-safety of Chinese labs and even improve treatment protocols and medicine combinations for patients, he said.

"My hunch is that all of this is politicized," said Huang, who also directs the Seton Hall University's Center for Global Health Studies. "That's made pure public health cooperation difficult."

The failure to cooperate on a pressing global health issue that has killed almost 1,400 people and infected more than 64,000 others shows just how much the relationship between the U.S. and China has deteriorated over the past few years. While President Donald Trump often touts his relationship with China's Xi Jinping, the strategic competition between the countries has only deepened since they signed their "phase-one" trade deal last month.

The U.S. this week charged members of China's military over one of the biggest data thefts in American history. On Thursday, Washington also increased the charges against Huawei Technologies Co. Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou -- who is currently fighting extradition to the U.S. from Canada -- to include racketeering conspiracy charges, which claim the Chinese company engaged in decades of intellectual property theft.


Members of the Trump administration also hit out at China over its response to the virus, even while the president himself has offered praise.

"We thought there was going to be more transparency, but we're a bit disappointed," Larry Kudlow, director of the U.S. National Economic Council, said Thursday. "We're more than willing to work with the UN WHO on this, and they won't let us. I don't know what their motives are. I do know that apparently more and more people are suffering over there, and that's not a good thing."

On Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China had worked with the international community in "an open, transparent and highly responsible manner." He added that Chinese officials have been in regular contact with American counterparts to exchange information about the epidemic.

"We welcome foreign experts' participation in the China-WHO Joint Mission, including those from the U.S.," Geng said in Beijing.


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