G7 ministers spike joint statement on COVID-19 after U.S. demands it be called 'Wuhan virus'

Any hope of G7 foreign ministers releasing a joint statement on the fight against COVID-19 was killed today after the U.S. insisted the document refer to it as the “Wuhan virus."

Sources say U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted on the wording

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that a G7 communique on COVID-19 refer to the "Wuhan virus." (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Any hope of G7 foreign ministers releasing a joint statement on the fight against COVID-19 was killed today after the U.S. insisted the document refer to it as the "Wuhan virus."

As originally reported by Der Spiegel, and according to sources with knowledge of the situation, when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted the novel coronavirus be referred to by the name of the Chinese city where the outbreak first appeared, ministers from other countries refused to agree.

G7 foreign ministers had planned to meet in Pittsburgh this week to discuss a range of issues. However, the in-person meeting was swapped for a video conference because of the pandemic.

According to one source, bureaucrats from each country had hoped to come up with a joint statement about the pandemic's impact ahead of the meeting.

Those talks did not get very far, and a proposed statement never reached politicians ahead of the teleconference. 

During the meeting itself, however, one of the ministers revisited the idea of issuing a joint statement.

Sources say that's when Pompeo said the U.S. wanted to refer to COVID-19 as the "Wuhan virus."

That was a red line for several ministers, and no joint statement was agreed upon or released.

One official from a country involved said Pompeo would not agree to a communique that didn't refer specifically to the "Wuhan virus."

That official said the G7 discussion was brief because it stalled over that issue and never got off the ground. 

The official downplayed the real-world impact the dispute might have, or the possibility that the dispute over wording, and  the absence of a G7 communique, would have a tangible effect.

Asked why including the term was so important in the global context of the pandemic, Pompeo blamed China for not spreading the word globally fast enough about just how dangerous the virus is.

"Make no mistake about it, everyone in that meeting this morning was very focused on making sure that we not only solve the health crisis associated with the Wuhan virus but also the economic challenges that face the globe as we confront it as well," he said. 

Naming diseases

The Trump administration's insistence on naming it the "Chinese virus," or the "Wuhan" virus, contravenes international guidelines. The World Health Organization says viruses shouldn't be named after cities and countries.

That advice is meant to avoid international finger-pointing in a crisis, and avoid repeats of taxonomic debates as occurred a century ago with the so-called Spanish flu, which did not originate in Spain. The coronavirus, however, is believed to have originated near Wuhan. 

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne participated in the call.

According to an official read-out of the call from his office, G7 foreign ministers "discussed the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on supply chains and the global economy, developing countries and the broader geopolitical context.

"They also stressed the importance of reinforcing their commitment to strengthening the United Nations' and the World Health Organization's response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis."

The Trump administration has faced criticism over how it has publicly discussed the pandemic. 

On multiple occasions, U.S. President Donald Trump has called it the "China virus." He has since stopped using that phrase and has called for an end to discrimination against Asian-Americans.

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