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In U.N. Speech, Trump Blasts China And WHO, Blaming Them For Spread Of COVID-19

President Trump speaks in a prerecorded message played Tuesday during the 75th session of the U.N. General Assembly.
President Trump speaks in a prerecorded message played Tuesday during the 75th session of the U.N. General Assembly.

Updated at 12:50 p.m. ET

In a speech Tuesday to the U.N. General Assembly, President Trump once again sought to blame China for the COVID-19 pandemic and called on Beijing to be punished for its handling of the disease, which has killed nearly 1 million people worldwide – a fifth of them in the United States.

Trump, speaking in a video address from the White House to a sparsely occupied hall of mask-wearing delegates at U.N. headquarters in New York, referred to the disease as the "China virus" and implied that Beijing and the World Health Organization had worked in tandem to cover up the danger of the pandemic.

"In the earliest days of the virus, China locked down travel domestically while allowing flights to leave China and infect the world," the president said. "China condemned my travel ban on their country, even as they canceled domestic flights and locked citizens in their homes."

He added, "The Chinese government and the World Health Organization — which is virtually controlled by China — falsely declared that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. Later, they falsely said people without symptoms would not spread the disease."

More than 200,000 Americans have now died from the disease — the world's highest death toll — since the first known case in the U.S. was identified in January.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, Trump praised WHO for its response, but as the coronavirus spread in the U.S., he became increasingly critical of both the U.N. body and Beijing for what he said was an effort to obscure the extent of the crisis.

Despite his own efforts to downplay the pandemic in its early days and criticism over his administration's slow response to combat it, the president defended the U.S. action on Tuesday, calling it "the most aggressive mobilization since the Second World War."

"We will distribute a vaccine, we will defeat the virus, we will end the pandemic, and we will enter a new era of unprecedented prosperity, cooperation and peace," Trump told the assembled delegates.

Earlier this month, the administration announced that the U.S. would not participate in the global coronavirus vaccine initiative, known as COVAX, that is co-led by the World Health Organization.

Trump's speech followed remarks by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who reiterated a theme he has hit on repeatedly in recent months — a warning against "vaccine nationalism." He advised against countries "making exclusive side deals" for vaccines.

"We need more international cooperation, not less" in the fight against COVID-19, Guterres said.

As Trump excoriated the United Nations and China, he also ticked off a campaign-style list of what he said were U.S. accomplishments: rebuilding the nation's economy, the fight against terrorism and the size and power of the American military.

"We have the most powerful military anywhere in the world, and it's not even close," he told the U.N. delegates.

Following Trump's speech, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin also addressed the General Assembly — both calling for a global effort to defeat the disease and calling on WHO to take a leading role in the fight.

In remarks that seemed aimed at Trump, Xi urged leaders to reject any attempt to politicize the pandemic.

"The virus will be defeated. Humanity will win this battle. Facing the virus we should put people and life first. We should mobilize all resources to make a science-based and targeted-response," Xi said, speaking in Mandarin.

"Facing the virus, we should enhance solidarity and get through this together," China's leader added. "We should follow the guidance of science, give full play to the leading role of the World Health Organization and launch a joint international response to beat this pandemic. Any attempt of politicizing the issue or stigmatization must be rejected."

Putin said that Russia, one of the countries hardest hit by the virus, is ready to provide its own vaccine, known as Sputnik V, which he has said will be ready for general distribution on Jan. 1. However, experts inside and outside Russia have greeted that news with skepticism, with some suggesting the haste in pushing an as-yet unproven vaccine may have more to do with politics than science.

"I would like to reiterate that we are completely open to partner relations and willing to cooperate," Putin said, adding, "We are ready to share experience and continue cooperating with all states and international entities, including in supplying the Russian vaccine, which has proved reliable, safe and effective, to other countries."

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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