WASHINGTON (AFP) -- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday stepped up a US campaign to hold China accountable for the spread of the deadly coronavirus, asserting there is "enormous evidence" the virus originated in a laboratory in the city of Wuhan.
The high-security bio-containment facility, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, has called such claims "impossible".
Pompeo, speaking on ABC's "This Week," did not elaborate on what he also described as "significant amounts of evidence". But Pompeo's words clearly sought to buttress repeated criticism from Donald Trump about China's role in the pandemic.
The US president has said that by playing down the gravity of the virus early this year and failing to fully cooperate with international investigators, Beijing put lives at risk around the world.
Pompeo's comments came as an Australian newspaper, The Saturday Telegraph, reported that China had deliberately suppressed or destroyed evidence about the outbreak in an "assault on international transparency" that cost tens of thousands of lives.
The report cited what it said was a 15-page dossier on the COVID-19 contagion prepared by the so-called Five Eyes intelligence agencies of the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.
Pompeo, a former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, made no mention of the Five Eyes report, but said that "there is enormous evidence that this (Wuhan) is where it began."
Last week, Pompeo indicated he had not seen definitive proof. "We don't know if it came from the Wuhan Institute of virology," he said at the time.
While highly critical of China's handling of the matter, Pompeo declined on Sunday to say whether he thought the virus had been intentionally released.
The pandemic has so far infected more than 3.4 million people and killed more than 243,000 around the world, while also fuelling conspiracy theories about its origin.
News reports say Trump has tasked US spies to find out more about the origins of the virus, at first blamed on a Wuhan market selling exotic animals like bats.
Pompeo told ABC that he agreed with a US intelligence community statement Thursday that backed "the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified."
But he went further than Trump, in citing "significant" and "enormous" evidence that the virus originated in the Wuhan lab.
"Remember, China has a history of infecting the world and running substandard laboratories," Pompeo said, adding early Chinese efforts to downplay the coronavirus amounted to "a classic Communist disinformation effort. That created enormous risk."
In its Thursday statement, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that the intel community will continue to study "whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan."
The Saturday Telegraph report said the Australian government believed the virus probably originated in a so-called wet market, but that there was a five percent chance it accidentally leaked from the Wuhan lab.
Some Democrats have said Trump is trying to shift blame to avoid responsibility for a slow response to the pandemic that has resulted in the US having by far the largest numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
"Not wanting to take responsibility as the deaths continue to mount, he blames others," Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont said in a statement.
Growing calls for transparency
Trump has also been sharply critical of the World Health Organization's response to the pandemic and is suspending US financial support, saying it moved too slowly to alert the world to the gravity of the disease and was insufficiently skeptical of China's involvement.
The WHO has said it wants to be invited to take part in Chinese investigations into the animal origins of the pandemic.
Several countries, including Australia, Britain, Germany and France, have joined in US calls for China to be more transparent about the coronavirus outbreak.
The United States now has more than 1,134,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 66,000 deaths, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
China now has nearly 84,000 cases and more than 4,600 deaths.
After moving aggressively to lock down the region and contain the virus, Wuhan and the surrounding province of Hubei lifted restrictions on movements in late March and early April. (AFP)