US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alleged Friday there were COVID-like illnesses among staff at a Chinese virology institute in autumn 2019, casting further blame on Beijing as health experts arrived in the country to probe the pandemic's origins.
The top US diplomat in a statement urged the World Health Organization team that landed Thursday in Wuhan, where COVID-19 was first detected, to "press the government of China" on the "new information."
"The United States government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the (Wuhan Institute of Virology) became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses," Pompeo said.
He said this contradicted reports that none of the staff at the institute had contracted COVID-19 or related viruses.
"Beijing continues today to withhold vital information that scientists need to protect the world from this deadly virus, and the next one," Pompeo said.
COVID-19 was first detected in Wuhan in late 2019 and has since billowed out across the world killing more than two million people so far, infecting tens of millions and eviscerating the global economy.
The WHO says establishing the pathway of the virus from animals to humans is essential to preventing future outbreaks.
The outgoing administration of Donald Trump has consistently blamed China for COVID-19, which has killed 390,000 people in the United States, with the president routinely calling it the "China virus."
With five days left in his job, Pompeo has been striking out at his primary targets of China, Iran and Cuba.
Earlier in the week, Pompeo alleged that Iran has become a new "home base" for Al-Qaeda, an assertion mocked by Tehran and questioned by experts.