BEIJING (Reuters) - China is fast-tracking a new law to help prevent infectious diseases and other “biological threats”, but some experts said a provision aimed at deterring false information could discourage potential whistleblowers and put the public at risk.
The proposed legislation, which is under discussion at the annual session of parliament that began on Friday, bars entities or individuals from fabricating or disseminating false biosecurity information, according to the latest and first publicly available draft of the law.
Authorities have repeatedly promised to take action to address “shortcomings” in public health laws and regulations, which has led to the fast-tracking of the biosecurity law.
But if medical workers’ information on what they suspect to be a new contagious disease cannot be proved 100% accurate, the fear is they could be punished.
“If I were a doctor, I would think about it,” said Zhang Mingmei, a lawyer at Beijing DHH Law Firm. “Had I reported (on a potential epidemic) and it later turned out to be incorrect, would I bear liability for this?”
“It takes time to make checks on false information,” Zhang said. “But ... opportunities to curb an epidemic will never return once we miss them.”
In January, Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang was reprimanded by police for spreading “illegal and false” information after disclosing on social media that multiple patients in the city had been infected by a virus similar to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
Li eventually became one of the early victims of a new coronavirus that would go on to kill 330,000 people worldwide, and his treatment by the authorities caused widespread outrage in China.
The legislation, a draft of which was first reviewed by the parliament’s standing committee in October, was opened for public comment in late April and will remain so until mid-June, according to the parliament website.
China aims to roll out the law by the end of the year, a parliamentary spokesman said on Thursday, unusually fast for a comprehensive new law by Chinese legislative standards.
‘OUR NATURAL-BORN RIGHT’
Some experts said they hoped the draft would be tweaked to give medical workers and others more leeway to raise the alarm in the event of a suspected new disease outbreak, even though their information may turn out not to be accurate.
In addition to the new biosecurity law, China’s top lawmaking body pledged last month to revise a series of existing laws, with the coronavirus outbreak providing “a deeper understanding of the importance and urgency of strengthening legal safeguards for public health.”
Xiao Youdan, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Science, said laws and regulations should protect the rights of front-line medical professionals to warn the public of potential health threats.
For example, even if they have not been authorised by the government to speak out, doctors or pharmacists should be allowed to warn patients to wear masks if they notice an increase in local consumption of antiviral drugs, or a surge in the number of respiratory infections, Xiao said.
“Access to such information should be our natural-born right,” Xiao said.
Wang Chenguang, a retired professor from Beijing’s Tsinghua University who has submitted suggestions to authorities on amending China’s infectious disease prevention and control law, said regulations should also require officials to consider epidemic clues gathered from informal channels like social media.
“If this is available, it should be treated carefully according to laws and regulations, rather than ignored or simply banned,” Wang said.
Reporting by Beijing newsroom; Editing by Mike Collett-White