WASHINGTON — Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross predicted Thursday morning that a deadly virus originating in China would cause companies to reconsider their global supply chains and ultimately “help to accelerate” the return of jobs to the United States.
In an interview on Fox Business, Mr. Ross said diseases like the Wuhan coronavirus, which has killed more than a hundred people and sickened thousands, were “another risk factor that people need to take into account” when considering where to locate operations.
“Every American’s heart has to go out to the victims of the coronavirus, so I don’t want to talk about a victory lap over a very unfortunate, very malignant disease,” Mr. Ross said. “But the fact is, it does give businesses yet another thing to consider when they go through their review of their supply chain.”
He cited the deadly SARS outbreak that paralyzed China 17 years ago, as well as the African swine fever that has decimated China’s pig farms.
“So I think it will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America,” Mr. Ross said of the coronavirus. “Some to U.S., probably some to Mexico as well.”
The Trump administration has been waging a global trade war in an attempt to bring jobs back to the United States. That has included steep tariffs on imported goods, which President Trump has wielded as a cudgel to force companies to relocate manufacturing to the United States.
Officials have said that the first-phase trade deal Mr. Trump signed with China this month would improve ties between the countries. But they also say that their tariffs — which remain in place on more than $360 billion of Chinese products — will cause American companies with Chinese operations to think about moving their supply chains back home.
Some companies that can move operations out of China have been doing so, in part to avoid the tariffs and in part because of longer-run economic factors, like China’s rising wages. But economists say that few of these factories are moving back to the United States. Instead, competition for factory space in low-wage countries like Vietnam, Mexico and India to make clothes, toys and shoes has been fierce.
And many companies say they are unable to move their supply chains, often because it is too expensive to shift or because China is the primary manufacturer of their materials. For instance, China remains the global hub of electronics manufacturing, and a huge consumer market in its own right.
The Chinese government has placed entire cities under lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus, and encouraged companies to let their workers stay home.
The moves are expected to result in a major dent in the Chinese economy — and are likely spill over to slow global growth. Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, said on Wednesday that “there is likely to be some disruption to activity in China and perhaps globally.”
The virus has already caused companies including Apple, Ford and Toyota to reroute supply chains and idle factories in China, while Ikea, Starbucks and other businesses have temporarily closed some Chinese stores. British Airways and Air Canada have suspended all flights to mainland China, while other major airlines have reduced the number of flights.
Mr. Ross, a wealthy investor, has been criticized for making controversial or seemingly out-of-touch statements in televised interviews before. In May 2018, he held up a can of Campbell’s soup while arguing that the administration’s metal tariffs would have a minimal effect on consumers. In early 2019, he suggested that workers who had been sent home without pay during the government shutdown should take out personal loans.
The Commerce Department, in an emailed statement, said Mr. Ross had made clear that the first step was to bring the virus under control and help victims of the disease. “It is also important to consider the ramifications of doing business with a country that has a long history of covering up real risks to its own people and the rest of the world,” the statement said.