Washington (AFP) – Donald Trump claimed he has seen evidence the new coronavirus originated in a Chinese lab, as he threatened tariffs on Beijing over its role in the global pandemic.
The US president’s assertion was immediately undermined by his intelligence chief and by his top diplomat, who said: “We don’t know precisely where it began.”
Trump’s latest anti-China barb came as new figures showed 30 million Americans have lost their jobs during lockdown.
The gloom in the world’s largest economy found its parallel across the Atlantic, where experts warned of an unprecedented financial catastrophe in Europe.
More than 230,000 people are known to have died in a pandemic that has forced more than half of humanity to live under some kind of lockdown.
Scientists believe the virus jumped from animals to humans, emerging in China late last year, possibly from a market selling exotic animals for meat.
But speculation has swirled about a top-secret lab, reinforced by internet rumours and right-wing shock jocks — and increasingly taken up by the US president.
Asked if he had seen anything giving him a high degree of confidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the source of the outbreak, Trump replied, “Yes, I have.”
He refused to give details.
However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated he had not seen definitive evidence.
“We don’t know precisely where it began,” he said.
“We don’t know if it came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. We don’t know if it emanated from the wet market or yet some other place. We don’t know those answers.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said analysts “will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine” the source of the outbreak.
Beijing has denied the lab was the source of the virus.
Last month foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said: “(World Health Organization) officials have repeatedly stated that there is no single evidence that the new coronavirus was produced in a laboratory.”
“Many well-known medical experts in the world also believe that the so-called laboratory leak hypothesis has no scientific basis,”
Trump is making Beijing’s handling of the outbreak a major issue for his November re-election campaign.
When asked about reports that he could cancel US debt obligations to China, Trump said he could “do it differently” and act in “more of a forthright manner”.
“I could do the same thing but even for more money, just putting on tariffs,” he said.
The latest jobless claims by another 3.84 million Americans mean roughly nine percent of the US population have filed for unemployment benefits in the past six weeks.
The economic costs of lockdowns imposed to try to limit the spread of the disease have spilled over into frustration.
In Michigan, protesters — some of them armed — stormed the state capitol building, demanding the removal of restrictions, which they say hurt the economy and represent governmental overreach.
The depressing US jobs data compounded a tough message from European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde.
“The euro area is facing an economic contraction of a magnitude and speed that are unprecedented in peacetime,” she warned.
ECB economists expect output in the 19-nation currency club to shrink by “five to 12 percent” this year, she added.
The coronavirus has infected at least 3.2 million people so far, with Russia’s Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin becoming the latest high-profile figure to test positive as his country’s caseload surged past 100,000.
But there was some reason for cheer.
Germany accelerated plans to start lifting its anti-virus lockdown, preparing gradually to ease curbs on public life and reopen religious institutions, museums and zoos — having restarted shopping last week.
“It remains absolutely important that we stay disciplined,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Italy, once the world centre of the outbreak, said it was hoping to reopen two major airports next week, but would move slowly.
“We cannot allow the efforts made to be in vain because of rashness at this delicate stage,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said.
And British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who himself battled COVID-19, said his country — which has the world’s third-highest death toll, behind the US and Italy — was “past the peak” of its outbreak.
Johnson said he would publish a roadmap next week on easing restrictions.
All happening at the zoo
The stay-at-home rules have left zoo animals around the world short of visitors.
In Singapore, keepers have taken a colony of African penguins to the children’s playground to give the attention-starved birds a bit of stimulation.
And in Tokyo, aquarium bosses were asking members of the public to Facetime lonely eels, fearful that the shy creature are forgetting what humans look like.
“Garden eels in particular disappear into the sand and hide every time the keepers pass by,” said Sumida Aquarium. “Could you show your face to our garden eels from your home?”
For those who prefer their creatures virtual, Nintendo’s smash-hit “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” was offering lockdown solace.
“Right now, watching news on TV can really be scary, but in this game, it’s just as if nothing is happening, it’s all quiet and peaceful,” said Kanae Miya.