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China sets up new health body after botched early Covid response

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China announced a new disease prevention and control agency under the aegis of its top health body, in what is its biggest move yet to address gaps that caused critical delays in sounding the alarm about Covid-19 when it first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019.

The new National Disease Prevention and Control Bureau will draft policies regarding infectious disease control and provide guidance on the surveillance of epidemics, among other public health mandates, state news agency Xinhua reported on Thursday.

While no further detail was given, the new bureau will be headed by a long-time health official Wang Hesheng, who had been tasked to take over the crisis in Wuhan in early 2020 after the officials there were sacked. Wang’s appointment suggests that mistakes made during the Wuhan outbreak, in which local whistleblower doctors were initially reprimanded by police and information kept from the outside world, will inform the new body’s work.

China has been criticised by the US and other countries for covering up the outbreak’s severity in its early days, which allowed the pathogen to spread around the world before governments realised. While Beijing has always denied that it hid information from the world, President Xi Jinping has called for efforts to reform the country’s public health system because it lacks the capability and nimbleness to deal with large-scale outbreaks.

The unit is affiliated with China’s National Health Commission, which currently oversees the country’s Covid-19 response. The Chinese Center for Disease Prevention and Control — chiefly a research body — has provided technical guidance to the NHC.

Xi last year urged Communist Party cadres and government officials to reflect on the “problems and shortcomings” exposed in China’s epidemic control. A key issue in Wuhan was that local officials and experts were not empowered to react to signs of emerging outbreaks quickly by alerting the highest levels of government or external health bodies like the World Health Organization. Instead, precious days were lost as information was bottlenecked in bureaucracy.

One of Wang’s deputies will be top medical expert Shen Hongbin, whose research focuses on lung cancer. The other two are bureaucrats with extensive experience in managing hospitals and health-related emergency responses.

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