China Pledges Reform of Outbreak Reporting After Virus Delays

(Bloomberg) -- China will reform its system for disease prevention and control, improving mechanisms for direct and early reporting of outbreaks of infectious disease, said Premier Li Keqiang in an annual policy address on Friday.

The reforms will “ensure prompt, open and transparent release of epidemic information,” said Li, without elaborating on what changes would be made.

The pledge comes amid mounting global criticism that China’s delay in responding to the emergence of Covid-19, and sharing information about the outbreak globally, allowed the pathogen to spread around the world undetected. The coronavirus has now sickened over 5 million people worldwide and killed over 330,000.

In the early days of the outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan last December, whistle-blowing doctors were reprimanded by local officials for circulating information about the new virus. The central government did not surge into action until Jan. 23, when it ordered the region to be sealed off.

News reports and U.S. officials have also accused China of not sounding the alarm early that the virus was transmitting between humans. Chinese officials have denied any intentional delay, saying that the country’s scientists did not fully understand that the virus was transmitting easily until Jan. 19.

The reprimanding of the eight whistle-blowing doctors was later criticized by the country’s Supreme Court, but the death of one of them -- 34-year-old Li Wenliang -- became a lightning rod for public anger over the mishandling of the crisis.

In his annual policy address in Beijing on Friday, Li also pledged that China would invest more into the research and development of vaccines, treatments and rapid testing technology. It’ll set up more quarantine facilities, mobile laboratories and ensure that supplies are sufficient for emergencies, he added.

China will strengthen its national health insurance system and help medical institutions badly hit by the epidemic, he said.

In a separate report released Friday by the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s top economic planning body, China said it would strengthen international cooperation in vaccine research.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged to make any effective vaccine against the coronavirus that is developed by China accessible and affordable globally as a “public good.” The country has five vaccines in the second of three phases of human trials -- more than the U.S. and Europe combined.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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