A member of medical staff holds a swab tested during a drive-thru for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing, at a makeshift centre in Shah Alam, Malaysia April 20, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

President Donald Trump raised the prospect that China deliberately caused the Covid-19 outbreak that's killed over 39,000 Americans and said there should be consequences if the country is found to be "knowingly responsible."

Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, said Sunday that the first country exposed to a pandemic has a "moral obligation" to be transparent in its response.

"Let's see what happens with their investigation. But we're doing investigations also," Trump said at a White House news conference on Saturday. "If it was a mistake, a mistake is a mistake. But if they were knowingly responsible, yeah, then there should be consequences."

Vice President Mike Pence said Sunday that the U.S. would "make proper inquiries into this at the proper time."

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"It is clear to us that not only was there a failure by the World Health Organization to communicate to America and the world what was happening in China, but also that China was not as forthcoming as they should have been," Pence said on "Fox News Sunday."

As scrutiny of Trump's response to the outbreak has intensified, congressional Republicans have sought to blame China for the coronavirus outbreak, which emerged from the country's Hubei province in late 2019.

Some GOP lawmakers have suggested the virus was released from a lab during Chinese experiments, and have floated a bill that would allow Americans to sue China for damages.

China's foreign ministry said Monday the international community "should work together through these difficult times instead of pointing fingers at each other."

"The virus is the common enemy of all mankind and may appear at any time in the world," ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing. "Like many other countries, China was attacked by this virus. We are the victim instead of the culprit."

Virus and Wuhan lab

'Big Difference'

Republican political organizations have attacked Democrats who've defended the Chinese people or their leadership, in one case calling a Democratic House member a "Chinese asset" for his remarks.

Trump's GOP Blames China for Coronavirus With Eye on 2020

"Our relationship with China was good until they did this," Trump said Saturday. "The question was asked, 'would you be angry at China?' Well, the answer might very well be a very resounding yes, but it depends: was it a mistake that got out of control, or was it done deliberately?"

"There's a big difference between those two," he said.

The Trump campaign sent a fund-raising email last week that accused China of "lying" about the outbreak. But Trump himself hasn't been as harsh on the country. He repeatedly praised China and its president, Xi Jinping, in January and February for its handling of the outbreak, complicating Republican efforts to brand the country as a villain now.

Trump said last week he would halt U.S. funding for the WHO, accusing the UN agency of taking Chinese claims about the disease "at face value." The move has been criticized internationally and by many Democrats.

Birx said on ABC's "This Week" that the first country exposed to a pandemic - in this case, China - "has really a higher moral obligation on communicating and transparency."

"That's sometthing that we can look into after this is over," Birx said. "We can figure out really what has to happen for first alerts and transparency and understanding very early on."