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Missouri sues China over alleged COVID-19 'cover-up'

A picture released by Xinhua News Agency shows Chinese President Xi Jinping visiting patients who are being treated at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, on March 10. Photo by Ju Peng/EPA-EFE
A picture released by Xinhua News Agency shows Chinese President Xi Jinping visiting patients who are being treated at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, on March 10. Photo by Ju Peng/EPA-EFE

April 21 (UPI) -- Missouri sued China on Tuesday over its "sinister campaign of malfeasance and deception" concerning the coronavirus outbreak, becoming the first state to seek damages from the Asian nation for the loss of life and economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Filed in federal court by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, the civil lawsuit accuses China, its ruling communist party, health officials and others of causing the state financial losses and deaths through the COVID-19 pandemic it caused by attempting to suppress information about the virus, arrest whistleblowers and deny the infectiousness of the disease.

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The coronavirus emerged early December in the central Chinese city of Wuhan before spreading the world over and as of Tuesday, it has killed more than 177,000 people, including 189 Missourians.

"COVID-19 has done irreparable damage to countries across the globe, causing sickness, death, economic disruption and human suffering," Schmitt said in a statement. "The Chinese government lied to the world about the danger and contagious nature of COVID-19, silenced whistleblowers and did little to stop the spread of the disease. They must be held accountable for their actions."

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China has yet to respond to the lawsuit but has denied similar allegations before, stating it has been transparent and responsible over its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The lawsuit accuses the Asian nation and its officials of denying into late January the risk of human-to-human transmission of the virus, of arresting doctors for attempting to warn others about the virus, of failing to contain the outbreak and of hoarding personal protective equipment.

"When their actions began to kill hundreds of thousands of people across the globe, Defendants sought to minimize the consequences, engaging in a cover-up and misleading public relations campaign by censoring scientists, ordering the destruction and suppression of valuable research and refusing cooperation with the global community, all in violation of international health standards," Schmitt wrote in the lawsuit.

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The lawsuit was filed as Republicans push legislation that would allow China to be punished over the coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri announced the Justice for Victims of COVID-19 Act that would strip China of its sovereign immunity and open its government to civil liability claims, such as the one filed by Schmitt.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas also introduced a similar bill that would create a narrow expectation within the Sovereign Immunities Act to seek damages from China over its alleged "dangerous handling" of the outbreak.

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The legal grounds for Schmitt's argument comes under a commercial activity exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act that opens a foreign state to litigation when damages are sought "for personal injury or death, or damage to or loss of property, occurring in the United States and caused by the tortious act of omission of that foreign state."

Beijing has repeatedly balked at accusations of wrongdoing in its response to the coronavirus and has often highlighted praise for its response from the World Health Organization.

In response to the U.S. criticism and recent legislation, China's spokesman Geng Shuang retorted that there has never been such precedence and that no one sought compensation from the United States over those killed and the financial losses incurred from 2009's H1N1 outbreak.

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"The international community bears witness to and applauds China's efforts and progress," Geng said during a regular daily press briefing on Monday. "The virus is a common enemy to all mankind and may strike anytime, anywhere. Like other countries, China is also a victim, not a perpetrator, even less an accomplice of COVID-19."

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