Republican senator suggests worse than Chernobyl coronavirus could have come from Chinese superlabor

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton suggested that Chinese officials misled the public on the origins of the novel coronavirus that has killed at least 362 people and infected more than 17,400 others, saying it may have originated in a "superlaboratory."

At a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing with US military leaders on Thursday, Cotton described the coronavirus as the "biggest and most important story in the world" and "worse than Chernobyl."

Cotton, a longtime China hawk, suggested Beijing had not been as forthcoming about the number of infections and was "lying about it from the very beginning" to downplay the seriousness of the epidemic. Chinese officials have been accused of lowering the number of cases and tamping down on reports weeks before it was formally acknowledged by the government.

"They also claimed, for almost two months until earlier this week, that it originated in a seafood market in Wuhan," Cotton said, referring to a study published by The Lancet. "That is not the case."

Medical staff at the entrance of a clinic in Fuyang in central China's Anhui province.

Initial studies linked the virus to various sources, including a seafood market in Wuhan, China, and bats. In one of the studies from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, six of the seven virus samples were from patients who worked at the Huanan wholesale seafood market.

"Of the original 40 cases, 14 of them had no contact with the seafood market, including patient zero," Cotton said. "I would note that Wuhan also has China's only bio-safety level four 'superlaboratory' that works with the world's most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus."

Cotton was referring to China's first Biosafety Level 4 lab, the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which investigates "the most dangerous pathogens," according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While Cotton qualified his remarks by saying "we still don't know where" the virus originated, his comments come amid numerous conspiracy theories about the virus's origins — including one that says the virus "originated in lab linked to China's biowarfare program."

The amount of false information spreading across social-media platforms has prompted several companies, including Facebook, to limit the reach of such posts. In a statement, Facebook said it would display "accurate information" and notify users if they are suspected of sharing false or misleading information.

China accused the US of "fear and overreaction" after President Donald Trump imposed a temporary travel ban on people who had visited China within the past 14 days.

"In the face of the public-health crisis, countries should work together to overcome the difficulties and not shift one's troubles onto others, let alone take advantage of people's precarious position," a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said.

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