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The coronavirus pandemic prompted calls to reform the disease prevention and control system. Photo: AFP

China sets up new, more powerful national disease control agency

  • Bureau will be responsible for developing policies to prevent and control infectious diseases and overseeing alert systems
  • It follows calls for reform, including President Xi saying Covid-19 had exposed long-standing issues in the health system

China launched a new national disease control bureau with more power on Thursday, according to state media, in a move aimed at improving the system to better prevent future outbreaks and safeguard public health.

Wang Hesheng – an official who was last year sent to coordinate the fight against the coronavirus in Hubei province, where the first cases were detected – has been appointed head of the new National Administration for Disease Control and Prevention, the State Council said in a notice.

According to multiple reports citing doctors and health officials, local authorities in the province are believed to have interfered with direct reporting of the novel coronavirus in the epicentre, Wuhan, delaying efforts to contain the spread of the virus after it emerged in late 2019.

Since the outbreak was largely brought under control in China there have been calls to reform the disease prevention and control system, with President Xi Jinping saying in June that the virus had exposed long-standing issues in the health system.
Wang Hesheng has been appointed head of the new agency. Photo: Weibo
“China’s public health system has played important functions. However, when faced with a major epidemic, problems such as [the system] not being powerful enough, not flexible enough, not agile enough and the insufficient integration between prevention and treatment, were exposed,” Xi told health experts in Beijing last year, according to Communist Party journal Qiushi.

“These are old problems. It’s time to be resolute in solving them,” he said.

The new agency will be managed by the National Health Commission and will be responsible for developing policies to prevent and control infectious diseases, supervising disease prevention and alert systems, and other public health work, Xinhua reported.

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It is not clear what relationship it will have with the existing Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is also under the health commission and has similar functions. The new agency is based at the same address as the health commission in Beijing.

Administration chief Wang is a career bureaucrat who worked in the education and propaganda departments of the northern city of Tianjin before he joined the National Health Commission in 2016. He appears to have retained his role as deputy director of the health commission.

Wang’s deputies at the new bureau will be Sun Yang, former director of the National Health Commission’s emergency response department, Chang Jile, former head of the disease control unit at the commission, and Shen Hongbing, president of Nanjing Medical University and an epidemiologist.

Epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan says the new agency will be able to directly report emergencies to central authorities to avoid delays. Photo: Xinhua

The existing Chinese CDC is an independent agency set up in 2001 within the cabinet-level National Health Commission, but experts say it does not have enough decision-making and administrative power.

Its founding chief, Li Liming, said in an interview last year the development of the Chinese CDC – modelled on its US counterpart – had fallen short of his expectations when he helped to set it up.

He told China Newsweek magazine there had been discussions about integrating a similar unit with administrative functions within the National Health Commission but they were suspended due to the Sars epidemic.

Top epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan, known for his role in the fight against both Sars and Covid-19, said that with more administrative power, the new agency should improve the system.

Zhong told state-run People’s Daily in an interview last month that the bureau would be able to directly report emergencies to central authorities to avoid delays.

He said it should also have the authority to monitor some administrative departments to prevent inaccurate assessments of disease outbreaks.