The US state of Missouri on Tuesday sued China’s leadership over the COVID-19 coronavirus, seeking damages over what it described as deliberate deception and insufficient action to stop the pandemic.
The first-of-a-kind state lawsuit comes amid calls in Congress to punish China and a campaign by President Donald Trump to focus on Beijing’s role, amid criticism of his own handling of the crisis.
Missouri, led by Trump’s Republican Party, filed a lawsuit in a federal court seeking an unspecified amount in damages and an injunction on continuing actions by China that are alleged to include hoarding of protective equipment.
“The Chinese government lied to the world about the danger and contagious nature of COVID-19, silenced whistle-blowers and did little to stop the spread of the disease,” Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said.
“They must be held accountable for their actions,” he said.
The lawsuit’s chances of success are far from certain as US law, under the principle of sovereign immunity, generally forbids court action against foreign governments.
Missouri addressed the issue by suing the ruling Communist Party, arguing that it is not formally an organ of the Chinese state.
Citing an estimate that Missouri may lose tens of billions of dollars due to the virus and action to prevent it, the lawsuit accused the Chinese Communist Party of being in “knowing, wilful and in reckless disregard of the rights of the state and its residents.”
The lawsuit pointed to Chinese authorities’ early suppression of news of the virus when it broke out in Wuhan, including detentions of whistleblowers.
It also noted that China initially said there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission.
Despite Trump’s heavy criticism of China, his administration has been lukewarm about efforts to take action against Beijing, mindful that the Asian power is a major source of masks and other medical supplies desperately needed by the United States.
Under its conservative leadership, Missouri has imposed fewer COVID-19 restrictions than most US states, including allowing businesses to remain open as long as they limit the number of people present and ensure space between them.
Missouri as of Tuesday had reported 189 COVID-19 deaths, half of them in St. Louis.