The Trump administration has started talks on winding down the White House Task Force on coronavirus and gradually delegating its responsibilities to the relevant federal agencies, US Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday.
"I think we are having conversations about that and about what the proper time is for the task force to complete its work and for the ongoing efforts to take place on an agency-by-agency level," said Pence, Reuters reported.
The White House has already begun to talk about a transition plan with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), he said. The news was first reported by The New York Times.
"I think we are looking at phase two and we are looking at other phases," he said, adding that the country is starting to open up and noting that the task force has done "a phenomenal job".Apart from that, the US Treasury Department will begin distributing $4.8 billion in pandemic-relief funds to Native American tribal governments in all US states on Tuesday, the Treasury and Interior Departments said in a joint statement.
Payments would begin Tuesday to help the tribes respond to the novel coronavirus outbreak based on population data in US Census figures, the statement said, while payments based on employment and expenditure data would be made at a later date, PTI reported.
Amounts calculated for Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act regional and village corporations, for-profit businesses that serve tribal villages in Alaska, would be held back until pending litigation relating to their eligibility was resolved, they said.
The decision frees up about 60 per cent of the $8 billion in funds earmarked for Native tribes in the CARES Act, after delays caused by a legal dispute among the nation's native populations over who is entitled to the aid.
Democratic Senator Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said the decision to start funds flowing to Native communities was "too little, too late," and the full amount of the funding should be released.
"Native communities needed these resources for their health and economic recovery plans weeks ago," Udall said. "Native communities are on the front lines of this crisis."
Meanwhile, the Chinese Army is indulging in aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea and the Chinese Communist Party has ramped up its disinformation campaign to try to shift the blame on coronavirus and burnish its image, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Tuesday.
"While the Chinese Communist Party ramps up its disinformation campaign to try to shift blame and burnish its image, we continue to see aggressive behaviour by the PLA in the South China Sea, from threatening a Philippine Navy ship to sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat and intimidating other nations from engaging in offshore oil and gas development," Esper told reporters at a Pentagon news conference.
Last week, two US Navy ships conducted freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to send a clear message to Beijing that America will continue to protect the freedom of navigation and commerce for all nations large and small, he said.
Many countries, Esper said, have turned inward to recover from the pandemic and in the meantime, America's strategic competitors are attempting to exploit this crisis to their benefit at the expense of others.
Responding to a question, he said the Chinese have not been transparent from the beginning on the coronavirus pandemic.
"If they had been more transparent, more open, upfront in terms of giving us access, the reporting, giving us access not to the people on the ground but to the virus they had so we could understand it, we would probably be in a far different place right now. But where we are now is this," Esper said.
China needs to allow the United States in to talk to early patients, Chinese researchers and scientists, and to have access, he added.'
Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said that "we don't know" where the coronavirus originated.
"Did it come out of the virology lab in Wuhan, did it occur in the wet market there in Wuhan or did it occur somewhere else? And the answer to that is we don't know," the top US military officer told reporters on Tuesday in a Pentagon briefing when asked about the origin of Covid-19, Xinhua news agency reported.
"Various agencies both civilian and US government are looking at that," he added.
Milley said that the weight of evidence indicated the coronavirus was "natural and not manmade" and was "probably not intentional."
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also noted in his Monday interview with National Geographic that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated.
Asked about the possibility that the virus was found outside the lab, then brought back and escaped, Fauci said, "That means it (virus) was in the wild to begin with."
"That's why I don't get what they're talking about (and) why I don't spend a lot of time going in on this circular argument," he said.
The remarks of Milley and Fauci were in stark contrast to the claim made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday that "there is a significant amount of evidence" that the virus came from a lab in Wuhan.
US media reported last week that some US intelligence analysts had expressed concern that senior Trump administration officials' pressure to link the coronavirus with a Chinese lab will distort assessments about the virus and they could be used as a political weapon.