US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Thursday that the virus that has killed 170 people in China and sparked global health fears could help create jobs in America.
Ross said the virus, which has spread to at least 15 countries, was "very unfortunate" but that it was also a "risk factor" for businesses weighing up whether to operate in China.
"I don't want to talk about a victory lap over a very unfortunate, very malignant disease but the fact is, it does give businesses yet another thing to consider," he told the Fox Business TV channel.
"So I think it will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America, some to (the) US, probably some to Mexico as well." His comments triggered immediate criticism on social media and from health experts.
"You have somebody of that stature who makes an irresponsible comment, speaking on matters in which he has no expertise," Georges Benjamin, of the American Public Health Association, told the Washington Post.
"There's no scientific or historical evidence to what he's saying." The World Health Organization was due to meet Thursday to decide whether to declare a global emergency over the disease, which is believed to have emerged from an animal market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
Many governments have urged their citizens not to visit China, while some have banned entry for travellers from Wuhan.
US President Donald Trump waged a bitter trade war for several years with China over jobs and subsidies, though he recently signed a "phase-one" deal to ease tensions.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has said the SARS-like coronavirus poses a risk to the world economy.
Toyota, IKEA, Starbucks, Tesla, McDonald's and tech giant Foxconn have been among corporate giants to temporarily freeze production or close large numbers of outlets in China.