U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Feb. 25 criticized China and Iran for allegedly covering up cases of the new coronavirus and warned that the possible suppression of information may hinder the global response to the outbreak.
“Had China permitted its own—and foreign journalists and medical personnel—to speak and investigate freely, Chinese officials and other nations would have been far better prepared to address the challenge,” Pompeo told reporters during State Department news conference on Tuesday.
He accused the Chinese Communist Party of censorship and of hiding the severity of the deadly COVID-19 illness while condemning the government’s decision to expel three Wall Street Journal reporters last week. Pompeo said a free press was needed to ensure accurate information about the virus is available to the public and medical personnel.
“Expelling our journalists exposes once again the government’s issue that led to SARS and now the coronavirus, namely censorship. It can have deadly consequences,” Pompeo said.
Tens of thousands of people are believed to have been sickened by the virus, although outside medical experts have questioned the number of cases that are being reported by Chinese health authorities.
Pompeo also said Iranian authorities must “tell the truth” about the virus amid signs the outbreak there may be far wider than officially acknowledged.
The virus, which causes the disease COVID-19, emerged in the city of Wuhan, China in late 2019 and has since spread to dozens of countries. There has been a rapid increase in the number of cases in Italy, Iran, and South Korea this week, among other nations. Dozens of people have died around the world outside of China from the virus, which causes a disease that brings similar symptoms to influenza, including fever, headache, and difficulty breathing.
Iran currently has the second-highest number of deaths after China. Its government said Monday that 12 people had died nationwide from the new coronavirus, rejecting claims of a death toll of 50 people by a lawmaker from the city of Qom that has been at the epicenter of the virus in the country.
The lawmaker, Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, claims the death toll dates back to Feb. 13. Iran first officially reported cases of the virus and its first deaths on Feb. 19.
The conflicting reports raised questions about the Iranian government’s transparency concerning the scale of the outbreak.
Pompeo said the United States is “deeply concerned by information indicating that the Iranian regime may have suppressed vital details about the outbreak in that country.”
The Secretary of State’s comments condemning the nations came as the head of an Iranian health minister, Iraj Harirchi, who had urged the public not to overreact about the spread of the virus tested positive for the illness himself.
Harirchi—the head of Iran’s task force to stop the spread of COVID-19—confirmed he was infected in a video posted online by the state-run Fars News Agency.
“I wanted to tell you that I got corona,” said Harirchi, according to a translation from The Guardian. “I had a fever yesterday. The tests came back positive last night. I isolated myself. Just a few moments ago, I was told that the final test came. I’ll start taking medicine. Generally, I feel fine. I just felt a bit tired, I had a fever, and it will drop.”
Harirchi was seen wiping his forehead during a press conference on Feb. 24 before he tested positive for the virus.
The number of infections in Iran has risen to 61, according to its health ministry. First cases of the virus have also been reported in five neighboring countries, including Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, and Afghanistan, with all patients having links to Iran. Some infected by the virus traveled directly from a city in Iran where confirmed COVID-19 cases have not been reported by authorities.
In response to the outbreak in Iran, the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority said it would cut off flights to and from the country. The UAE is home to international carriers Emirates and Ethiad, and reports noted that Iranians are heavily dependent on using its airports.
“Take care of yourselves,” said Harirchi. “This virus is a democrat virus! It does not differentiate between the rich and the poor or official and nonofficial and anyone could get it.”
Pompeo added that the number one priority is to protect the United States from further spread of the virus after new cases were confirmed in a number of countries this week. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday said Americans should prepare for community spread of the disease.
The Associated Press and Jack Phillips contributed to this report.