Coronavirus: US calls on China to ban wildlife markets, as top Trump official accuses Beijing of 'cover up'

The US government has called on China to permanently close its wildlife markets, with secretary of state Mike Pompeo citing links between the markets and zoonotic diseases.

Mr Pompeo also claimed Beijing had “covered up” how dangerous the coronavirus was in the early stages of the outbreak.

The virus is believed to have emerged in a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

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“Given the strong link between illegal wildlife sold in wet markets and zoonotic diseases, the United States has called on the People’s Republic of China to permanently close its wildlife wet markets and all markets that sell illegal wildlife,” Mr Pompeo said in a statement.

The secretary of state also told a news briefing the US “strongly believed” Beijing had failed to report the outbreak in a timely manner, in breach of World Health Organisation (WHO) rules.

Mr Pompeo accused Chinese officials of failing to report human-to-human transmission of the virus for a month “until it was in every province inside of China”.

He also said China had halted testing of new virus samples, destroyed existing samples and failed to share samples with the outside world, “making it impossible to track the disease’s evolution”.

Even after Beijing notified the WHO of the outbreak, Mr Pompeo claimed it did not share all of the information it had. “Instead it covered up how dangerous the disease is,” he said.

Donald Trump’s administration has repeatedly criticised both China and the WHO’s handling of the outbreak. The pandemic has killed around 180,000 people globally, including more than 45,000 in the US.

The president last week suspended US funding to the WHO, accusing the UN agency of promoting China’s “disinformation” about the outbreak. WHO officials have denied this and China has said it has been transparent and open.

Mr Pompeo said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom failed to use his ability “to go public” when a member state failed to follow the rules. He said the WHO had an obligation to ensure safety standards were observed in virology labs in Wuhan and its director-general had “enormous authority with respect to nations that do not comply”.

He also accused China of taking advantage of the pandemic to bully neighbours – even as he welcomed Beijing’s provision of essential medical supplies to the US.

Pompeo speaks during a press briefing at the State Department, 22 April (AP)

Mr Pompeo repeated allegations that China was exploiting the world’s focus on the pandemic with “provocative behaviour” to erode autonomy in Hong Kong, exert military pressure on Taiwan and coerce neighbours in the South China Sea.

“The United States strongly opposes China’s bullying, we hope other nations will hold them to account,” he said.

Asked about recent reports that supplies were being held up in China, Mr Pompeo said: “The good news is we have seen China provide those resources; sometimes they’re from US companies that are there in China, but we’ve had success … We appreciate that.”

“We are counting on China to continue to live up to its contractual obligations and international obligations to provide that assistance to us and to sell us those goods … in a way consistent with all of the international trade rules.”