Washington — National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien suggested Wednesday that China "covered up" the initial outbreak of the coronavirus, delaying an effective global response by two months.
During an event at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday, O'Brien reiterated that the coronavirus did not originate in the United States but rather started "some time ago" in Wuhan, China.
"Unfortunately, rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up," O'Brien said. "There's lots of open-source reporting from China, from Chinese nationals, that the doctors involved were either silenced or put in isolation or that sort of thing, so that the word of this virus could not get out."
As a result of those actions by the Chinese government, "it probably cost the world community two months to respond," as health officials from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could have been on the ground sooner, he said.
"I think we could have dramatically curtailed what happened, both in China and what's now happening across the world," O'Brien added.
The coronavirus has since spread to more than 100 countries. In the U.S., the number of confirmed cases has topped 1,000 and the death toll is 32.
O'Brien commended President Trump for his "bold" and "courageous" action, including travel restrictions on people entering the U.S. from China. He said the move bought the U.S. six to eight weeks to prepare for the virus. But he said the Chinese government should have responded differently when the first cases were reported.
"In a way that this started out in China, the way it was handled from the outset was not right," he said. "It should have been handled differently, but we are where we are right now."
O'Brien's criticisms of the Chinese government echo comments from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week, who told CNBC in an interview Friday that China put the U.S. "behind the curve" in responding to the outbreak.
"Remember, this is the Wuhan coronavirus that's caused this, and the information that we got at the front end of this thing wasn't perfect and has led us now to a place where much of the challenge we face today has put us behind the curve," he said.
Pompeo added that obtaining data on the illness from the Chinese government "will ultimately be the solution to both getting the vaccine and attacking this risk," and said there was information the Chinese could have shared with world health officials faster.
To combat the spread of the coronavirus, local and state health officials have canceled schools in some areas and called off large-scale gatherings. Many private employers have told workers to work from home.
While Mr. Trump signed a $8.3 billion emergency funding package to respond to the coronavirus last week, the Trump administration is also weighing measures to provide economic relief to businesses and industries impacted by the virus and workers.
Olivia Gazis contributed reporting.