China has admitted that it destroyed early samples of the novel coronavirus, but said it did so for safety reasons. The acknowledgment by a Chinese official is a response to comments made earlier this week by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
A Chinese official publicly stated that the destruction of early samples was for "biosafety" and not part of a cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak.
"Based on comprehensive research and expert opinion, we decided to temporarily manage the pathogen causing the pneumonia as Class II — highly pathogenic — and imposed biosafety requirements on sample collection, transport, and experimental activities, as well as destroying the samples," China's National Health Commission's Liu Dengfeng told reporters, according to the South China Morning Post.
"If a lab does not have the necessary conditions to store samples, they should destroy the samples on-site or send them to professional storage institutions," Liu said. "Those are strictly enforced rules."
Chinese public health laws say that labs that do not meet certain standards must either transfer samples to a qualified depositary for safekeeping or destroy them. China's National Health Commission reportedly ordered the samples to be destroyed on Jan. 3.
"The remarks made by some US officials were taken out of context and intended to confuse," Liu said in reference to Pompeo.
China made the statement in response to accusations made by Pompeo on Monday. Pompeo questioned why China wouldn't share early COVID-19 samples that were taken in Wuhan back in December.
"The Chinese Communist Party tried to suppress information about this virus, about where it began, about how it started, about how it was being transmitted from human to human, indeed employed the World Health Organization to further that storyline," Pompeo told Christian radio program "Focus on the Family."
Last month, Pompeo said, "China didn't share all of the information it had. It censored those who tried to warn the world, it ordered a halt to testing of new samples, and it destroyed existing samples."
"The CCP still has not shared the virus sample from inside of China with the outside world, making it impossible to track the disease's evolution," Pompeo added.
Additionally, China refused to allow the World Health Organization to participate in an investigation into the origins of COVID-19, according to Dr. Gauden Galea, the WHO's representative to China.
"We know that some national investigation is happening but at this stage we have not been invited to join," Galea said.
"WHO is making requests of the health commission and of the authorities," Galea added. "The origins of the virus are very important, the animal-human interface is extremely important and needs to be studied."
President Donald Trump questioned China's proclamation that coronavirus originated from wet markets in Wuhan. Trump said he has a high degree of confidence that coronavirus originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Trump added that the WHO is a "public relations agency" for China.