WASHINGTON — Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the Chinese coronavirus — which has killed 170 in China and infected more than 7,700 people — could ‘‘help’’ to bring jobs to the United States because companies will be moving operations away from affected areas.
During an appearance Thursday morning on Fox Business, Ross said that he didn’t ‘‘want to talk about a victory lap over a very unfortunate, very malignant disease,’’ and expressed sympathy for the victims.
But he said the pneumonia-like virus would be a consideration for American businesses that are scrambling to determine how the outbreak will affect their supply chains. He pointed to the 2003 SARS epidemic, the ‘‘African swine virus,’’ and now coronavirus as ‘‘another risk factor that people need to take into account.’’
‘‘I think it will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America, some to [the] US, probably some to Mexico as well,’’ Ross said. He then said Apple was ‘‘talking about figuring out how to replace some of the Chinese production.’’ Apple had plans to assemble some phones and computers outside China before the coronavirus outbreak.
‘‘I think there’s a confluence of factors that will make it very, very likely more reshoring to the US and some reshoring to Mexico,’’ Ross said.
The White House has been pressuring companies in China to move operations to the United States. President Trump recently signed a partial trade deal with China meant to create new incentives for US companies.
But public health experts were quick to criticize Ross’s comments as inaccurate and dangerous, saying such messaging could suppress reports of new infections. Meanwhile, health officials are up against the spread of false information on social media, from conspiracy theories to deceitful claims of magical cures. And Facebook, Google, and Twitter are scrambling to crack down on the spread of dangerous health disinformation.
Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said that American companies would have more reason to be concerned about gun violence or measles outbreaks stateside ‘‘in terms of actual risk to their health than coronavirus.’’
‘‘You have somebody of that stature who makes an irresponsible comment, speaking on matters in which he has no expertise, and there’s no scientific or historical evidence to what he’s saying,’’ Benjamin said of Ross.
‘‘With this kind of new disease, you want as much openness as you can,’’ Benjamin added. ‘‘If you suppress that openness, which this will do, then you absolutely make it worse and more people will get sick, and more people will die.’’
Sandro Galea, dean of the School of Public Health at Boston University, said infectious diseases ‘‘threaten all of us’’ and that there’s never a positive consequence from an outbreak. Ross’s comments ‘‘rest on a misunderstanding of how infectious diseases are transmitted,’’ Galea said.
There’s a ‘‘responsibility that public officials have to communicate in an informed manner that educates the public and moves us towards an understanding of what actually generates help,’’ Galea said. ‘‘A comment like this achieves the exact opposite purpose.’’
White House officials so far have been careful in how they’ve talked about the economic implications of the health scare in China, and Trump has gone out of his way to praise Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Still, Ross has a history of breaking with White House’s messaging. During the government shutdown last year, when some federal workers were resorting to food banks, Ross suggested they consider taking out loans from credit unions to pay their bills. Ross is a billionaire and longtime friend of the president.
Total infections in mainland China have surpassed those of the SARS outbreak, and roughly 100 cases have been recorded in other parts of the world. Global businesses — from Starbucks to airlines to automakers — are increasingly scaling back or suspending their operations nationwide and, with an official lockdown affecting more than 50 million people, consumer spending has plunged.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told Fox Business on Thursday that the White House is not expecting coronavirus to deal a blow to the US economy.
‘‘We see no material impact on the economy,’’ Kudlow said. ‘‘The pandemic is, of course, in China, not the United States.’’
Many factories have extended their customary closures beyond the end of the Lunar New Year celebration through at least the second week of February. Some of Apple’s Chinese suppliers are slated to stay closed until Feb. 10. And executives are waiting to see whether the virus sparks broader economic consequences, both within and beyond China, the longer the public health crisis persists.