An official in China’s foreign ministry defended his tweets questioning whether American soldiers introduced the coronavirus to Wuhan, in his first comments on the controversy over responsibility for the pandemic.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a briefing Tuesday in Beijing that his social media posts were “a reaction to some U.S. politicians stigmatizing China a while ago.” In response to a question about whether the tweets represented the government’s official stance, Zhao said, “This also reflects the anger of many Chinese people about this stigma.”

The briefing was Zhao’s first time at the lectern since China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, told “Axios on HBO” that such speculation about the origins of the virus was “very harmful.” The unusual public spat between two top Chinese diplomats pointed to an internal split in Beijing over how to handle rising tensions with U.S. President Donald Trump.

The American president subsequently said he would stop using the term “Chinese virus” to describe the pathogen, in a sign that he wanted to deescalate a dispute blamed for undermining cooperation against the virus and prompting attacks on Asian Americans. An assessment by the U.S. intelligence community later found that Beijing concealed the extent of the early outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Bloomberg News reported April 1, citing three U.S. officials.

The comments by Cui, who outranks Zhao, represented a sharp public rebuke. One official told Bloomberg News last month that Zhao’s approach had been vocally welcomed by many inside the foreign ministry. Another expressed relief that Cui had disowned Zhao’s “dangerous” remarks.

Virus Origins

While the ultimate origins of the virus that causes Covid-19 remain a mystery, the pathogen was first detected in humans in Wuhan in December. China didn’t confirm that the disease was being transmitted between humans until Jan. 20 -- weeks after local doctors first warned about its potential to spread -- delaying global action to stop the outbreak.

On Tuesday, Zhao echoed Cui’s assertion that the source of the virus was a matter for scientists, not diplomats, saying “this is a scientific issue and and we need to hear the scientific professionals’ opinions.”

“The international community can only win the fight against the pandemic if it strengthens cooperation,” Zhao said. “It is hoped that the United States and China will meet each other halfway and work together in accordance with the consensus reached by the two heads of state to strengthen cooperation in combating the epidemic and other fields.”