Dr. Yi Lin
Chinese Ministry of Health
Yi Lin was born in the city of Wuhan in 1956. He received his MD from Nanjing Medical University in 1988 and after working for several years in Nanjing General Hospital, joined the Ministry of Health in 1996.
. When and why did the Ministry’s official stance of SARS change?
By the beginning of April, we realized that the SARS problem was a greater threat than we initially estimated and opened up our facilities and research to international organizations like the WHO to a greater extent. A WHO team entered Guangdong Province of the 9th and began working with health officials there to contain outbreaks. The Director of our Center for Disease Control even apologized publicly for the failure to effectively share information about SARS.
. Even after the apology, restraints on the sharing of information regarding SARS within China remained in place. Why did the Ministry choose to leave this policy in place?
There are many legal issues surrounding the sharing of sensitive information. It was not in the Ministry’s ability, nor was it our place, to circumvent these laws. No resource was spared in identifying the cause of the illness or in containing its spread, but the laws are written as they are for a reason, and we needed to respect that. At the same time, we did lift the ban on inter-lab transfers on April 14th and posted the genomes of four SARS-causing coronaviruses online on the 16th.
. How would you characterize the Chinese government’s position on SARS after the public admissions of the severity of the outbreak and the opening of Chinese facilities to the international community?
Once we realized the outbreaks were a serious threat, we worked fully and openly with the WHO and international health community to contain the disease. We also worked more directly to coordinate efforts within China. The initial response to SARS was mishandled, there is no question about that. But the response was hindered in large part because we did not know the cause or severity of the disease at first. On April 13th, Premier Wen Jiabao publicly admitted that the SARS outbreak was serious and promised that the government will make full disclosures. We kept to that promise, instructing Communist Party members to ensure that local officials reported all incidences of SARS quickly. In the end, both the mayor of Beijing and the head of the Ministry of Health were dismissed for failing to respond effectively to the SARS epidemic.
. What other steps did the government take to coordinate efforts to combat SARS?
No effort or expense was spared in the containment effort. We created an interagency SARS Control and Prevention unit to centralize coordination efforts. In early May, public events for the weeklong International Workers’ Day holiday, one of the biggest celebrations in China, were cancelled. So the threat was certainly taken seriously. In total, between local, provincial, and national governments more than seven billion yuan, about $240 million dollars, about $840 million dollars, was set aside as contingency funds for SARS and to prevent future public health emergencies.