U.S. lawmakers ready sanctions bill for foreign officials concealing coronavirus info

WASHINGTON, April 2 (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers plan to unveil a bill this week to give the Trump administration the power to impose sanctions on foreign officials who distort information about the coronavirus, amid accusations that China misled the world over the scope of the deadly disease.

Republican Senators Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley drafted the legislation, which allows the government to revoke visas, block U.S. property and bar future travel to the United States for foreign government officials who “deliberately conceal or distort” information about a public health emergency such as the coronavirus.

“By hiding the truth about the virus, the (Chinese Communist Party) has turned a regional health problem into a global catastrophe,” Cotton said in a statement.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment but the Chinese government has rejected the idea that Beijing was not transparent enough in its initial handling of the outbreak.

The coronavirus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December and has spread to over 200 countries, sickening more than a million people.

Bloomberg reported on Wednesday that a classified U.S. intelligence report had found that China concealed the extent of the outbreak in its country, under-reporting both total cases and related deaths.

Three citizen journalists who sought to expose the impact of the virus by posting videos of overwhelmed hospitals and bodies stacked in a minibus have since disappeared, according to press reports.

And China’s reprimand of a young Chinese doctor for “spreading rumors” when he tried to raise the alarm about the disease drew sharp international criticism. A Chinese report last month suggested the reprimand be withdrawn for the doctor, Li Wenliang, who has since died from the virus.

The bill, named for Li Wenliang, will be rolled out on Thursday but filed after the Senate is back in session later this month. Its future is far from certain, but the Trump administration often takes a page from China hardliners in Congress.

Cotton, a staunch China hawk, pressed the administration to ground flights from China soon after initial reports of the disease. Trump announced a travel ban on foreigners arriving from the Asian nation on Jan. 31. (Reporting by Alexandra Alper, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)