George Gao Fu, China CDC chief who helped lead response to coronavirus pandemic, resigns
George Gao Fu, the head of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is stepping down as head of the institution and will be replaced by Shen Hongbing, a prominent public health expert, the CDC announced.
In a statement, the CDC attributed the retirement of Gao, 60, to his age, although many Chinese officials remain in office well into their 60s and beyond. His successor Shen is only two years his junior.
A senior health official said on Tuesday he hoped the center’s new leadership would lead to “reforms” within the institution, including closer adherence to President Xi Jinping’s directives.
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At a meeting of CDC officials on Tuesday, Gao said that “as someone working in science, [he] would continue to devote energy to the advancement of disease control and the development of public health” even after his departure.
Wang Hesheng, China’s top infectious disease control official, was quoted by the CDC meeting minutes as praising Gao for his contributions to public health, including his “leadership of all center staff during the response to the coronavirus pandemic”. Gao’s tenure as CDC chief began in 2017.
Shen, Gao’s successor, is a fellow of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and former president of Nanjing Medical University.
Wang, who is vice minister of the National Health Commission, said he hoped Shen, along with several other newly appointed CDC officials, “would lead the [CDC’s] vast body of workers in the pursuit of the reform and development of the CDC”.
Among Wang’s hopes for such reforms were that the CDC “would have a clear stance on policy, comprehensively strengthen the [Chinese Communist] party leadership [of the CDC] …and strictly implement the main directives and instructions of General Secretary Xi Jinping.
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The CDC leadership overhaul comes as China continues to struggle with low vaccination rates among its elderly population, while implementing a zero-Covid strategy that included a strict Shanghai lockdown earlier this year.
Only 61% of people over the age of 80 received their primary shots, health officials said last week, and only 38% of people in that age group received a booster shot.
Gao caused a stir last April when he said China was considering mixing different vaccines or changing the number or frequency of vaccine doses “to solve the problem that the efficacy of its existing vaccines is not high. “.
The famed virologist later told the state tabloid world times his comments had been misunderstood and that he was referring to efforts to improve the effectiveness of vaccines around the world.
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To date, China has mainly relied on two inactivated virus vaccines: one made by Sinovac and the other by Sinopharm. A locally grown mRNA vaccine, which could offer a higher form of protection, is under development but has not yet been approved.
As U.S.-China relations languish at one of their lowest levels in decades, Gao has also distinguished himself from many Chinese officials by advocating for increased cooperation between the two powers on global health issues.
While some senior diplomats in Beijing have warned that Washington should not expect cooperation from China in some areas while tensions linger in others, Gao called last year for a bilateral effort to both identify the origins of Covid-19 and accelerate the development of vaccines.
Gao, a fellow at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, also said the U.S. and China should consider cooperating on public health as an opportunity to reset bilateral relations.
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The Oxford and Harvard-educated scientist is a longtime friend of Anthony Fauci, the American infectious disease expert who has quickly become one of the nation’s most trusted voices on the pandemic and serves as the chief medical adviser of President Joe Biden.
While Fauci’s advocacy for a strong pandemic response by the US government drew vocal opposition from then-President Donald Trump’s supporters, Gao reached out to him in April 2020 to offer his support.
“I’ve seen some news (hope it’s fake) that [you] are attacked by some people. I hope you are well under such [an] irrational situation,” Gao wrote in an email exchange obtained by The Washington Post.
“Thank you for your kind note,” Fauci replied. “All is well despite some crazies in this world.”
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