February 7, 2020

A Chinese physician who was questioned by Chinese police after issuing early warnings about the dangers of the new coronavirus died on Friday after contracting the virus.

Weekly line: The 'recurring themes' of disease outbreaks

About the outbreak

Reports of the new coronavirus first surfaced in early December 2019 in Wuhan, China. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the main symptoms of the virus, called 2019-nCoV, are fever and lesions in both lungs. Some patients also have reported difficulty breathing, WHO said.

As of Friday, health officials reported more than 31,400 cases of the virus globally, with more than 31,100 of those cases reported in China. Officials have reported about 300 cases of the new coronavirus outside of mainland China, including 12 confirmed cases in the United States.

Officials in China said there were 636 reported deaths linked to the virus as of Friday. A vast majority of the deaths occurred in mainland China, but Hong Kong and the Philippines each have reported one death linked to the virus.

Doctor raises red flags about potential new coronavirus 

In late January, Li Wenliang, a 33-year-old ophthalmologist based in Wuhan, told the Chinese Communist Party-controlled Beijing Youth Daily newspaper that in December 2019 he'd seen reports of a cluster of patients with pneumonia cases associated with an animal market in Wuhan.

Further, Li told the paper that, on Dec. 30, he used the messaging app WeChat to warn former classmates about new cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the Wall Street Journal reports. According to the Journal, Li later corrected himself, noting that the cases involved an unknown coronavirus.

Li told the newspaper that, shortly after he sent those messages, party disciplinary officials and hospital management interrogated him and accused him of spreading rumors. "They told me not to publish any information about this," he said.

According to Li, officials also forced him to sign a statement retracting his warning and stating that he had made unsupported and illegal claims.

How Li become infected

But Li told the paper, "Later, the epidemic started to spread noticeably." He said, "I'd personally been treating someone who was infected, and whose family got infected, and so then I got infected." Li noted that he had not been wearing any protective gear while treating patients when cases of the new virus first emerged, the Journal reports.

In interviews with Chinese media, Li said he contracted the virus from a female patient who he had treated for glaucoma during the second week of January. A CT scan confirmed the woman had an unknown virus in her lung.

Soon after, Li began coughing and had a high temperature—and a CT scan confirmed he also was infected with the virus. Li was hospitalized on Jan. 12, though he had not been counted as a confirmed case of the virus until Feb. 1, according to a post Li made last week on Weibo, which is the Chinese social media service.

The hospital put Li under quarantine, but Li found out his parents and some of his colleagues had been infected, too. "I was thinking then why the official announcement was still saying there had been no transmission between humans and of medical staff," Li wrote in the Weibo post.

Li's condition eventually worsened, and officials announced that Li died on Friday.

According to Chinese state media, providers immediately put Li on life support after his heart stopped beating at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday. The hospital said authorities had fought to keep Li alive, but ultimately pronounced him dead at 2:58 a.m. on Friday.

After Li's death was announced, the China's National Supervisory Commission, which is the country's anti-corruption body, announced it would launch an investigation into "issues" related to Li's death, according to the Chinese state media. The commission did not specify exactly what it planned to investigate, NPR's "Goats and Soda" reports.

'Our hope is gone'

According to the Journal, Li's decision to speak publicly about the government's efforts to quiet him elevated him to the status of a hero among Chinese residents, who have compared Li to Jiang Yanyong, a surgeon who rose to fame after publicly disclosing Beijing's efforts to cover up the SARS crisis in the early 2000s.

Across social media, Chinese residents have voiced their frustration with their government's response to the coronavirus outbreak, with many saying the Chinese government could have acted faster to address the virus' spread. On social media, people honored Li as "symbol" of the public's pursuit of accurate information from Chinese government officials, who have yet to answer the public's questions about the government's initial response to the outbreak, according to the Journal.

According to the New York Times, one person who commented on the hospital's announcement of Li's death wrote, "We will not forget the doctor who spoke up about an illness that was called rumor. What else can we do? The only thing is not to forget."

Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Program, on Thursday said, "We are very sad to hear of the loss of Dr. Li Wenliang. We should celebrate his life and mourn his death with his colleagues."

A Wuhan doctor who knew Li in a phone interview late Thursday night said, "Our hope is gone. He was our hero" (Deng/Chin, Wall Street Journal, 2/6; Neuman, "Goats and Soda," NPR, 2/7; Buckley, New York Times, 2/6; Associated Press, 2/7).

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