The criticisms of China over its handling of the coronavirus have been ramping up for weeks.
In an interview with Yahoo Finance, influential Texas Senator Ted Cruz pushed for a series of investigations with an eye toward punishing China. At issue is its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that has now infected more than 2 million people around the world.
The former presidential contender says that “for months and years to come after this crisis” the U.S. is going to be “reassessing and fundamentally changing the United States’ relationship with China.”
Cruz’s remarks came before the news emerged that the city of Wuhan was raising its death toll from the novel coronavirus by 50%. The about-face will almost surely further embolden China’s critics around the world.
‘It may have been an accidental release’
Perhaps the most controversial point in the interview was when Cruz brought up the idea that the virus might have begun in a government lab in China.
“I'm not suggesting it was a deliberate release, but that it may have been an accidental release of the virus that they were studying in government labs,” Cruz said, adding, if it’s true, “there has to be real accountability if the Chinese government bears direct responsibility for the origin of this virus.”
To make his case, Cruz cited reports of State Department cables – authored two years before the crisis began – that warned of safety issues at a Wuhan lab. One cable reportedly discusses the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and also the possibility of human transmission.
What has not emerged is evidence that a virus actually escaped from these labs or that the strain of coronavirus currently infecting the world was engineered by humans.
Some academic studies of the virus have found evidence they say shows the virus likely emerged naturally.
Cruz acknowledged that currently it’s just “circumstantial evidence” and he says he simply wants answers on things like what specific viruses the labs were studying. “Right now the Chinese government is stonewalling and doesn't want to answer any questions whatsoever," he said.
Other government officials, all the way up to President Trump, are interested in exploring the question.
Intelligence officials have reportedly begun investigating and Trump was asked about the reports on Wednesday. “I will tell you, more and more, we're hearing the story,” he said. “We are doing a very thorough examination of this horrible situation that happened.”
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton has also raised the possibility that the virus originated in a Wuhan lab.
Cruz also wants to investigate China for what he sees as its role in covering up the crisis after it emerged. “When it started to happen in December, they silenced it,” he said “They covered it up.”
Cruz has introduced legislation to sanction Chinese officials who are found to be involved in censorship of information about the outbreak. He believes that, without the coverup, the virus could have been contained as a regional outbreak instead of the current global pandemic.
Another area of focus: China and the supply chains
Cruz also wants to hit back at China and remove it from its position at the beginning of the supply chain for many medical products.
He says it’s a national security issue, citing reports that the Chinese government threatened to cut off pharmaceuticals to the United States.
“If China were to do that, that's not just economic warfare, that's actual warfare. That is threatening the lives of Americans by denying them medicines that are life-saving medicines they need,” he said.
Cruz was referencing an article written by a contributor and posted by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua. Halfway through the story, it raised the idea of China banning the export of drugs and said if it did so, “the United States would sink into the hell of a novel coronavirus epidemic,” according to a New York Times translation.
Trump, for his part, has talked about the need to reorient the supply chain away from China, but has downplayed the chances of them curbing drug exports to the U.S. “I don't see that at all,” he said when asked about supply chain disruptions on drugs, “I think China has every incentive to make sure that things work well.”
Cruz recently announced an effort, alongside Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, to expand medical partnerships with Israel as part of a phase 4 stimulus package.
He is also pushing a bill with Sen. Cotton encouraging the construction of new pharmaceutical plants in the U.S. to “use the purchasing power of the federal government to move some of the supply chain back.”
It’s unclear how much federal government’s actions can change entrenched private supply lines, but “we cannot be dependent upon the beneficence of the Chinese communist government for life-saving medicine,” Cruz said.
Ben Werschkul is a producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.