A Chinese doctor who was reprimanded by security police for warning fellow doctors about the initial coronavirus outbreak has died of the illness, according to Wuhan Central Hospital.
Li Wenliang, 34, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, was “unfortunately infected during the fight against the pneumonia epidemic of the new coronavirus infection,” the hospital said on its social media account. “We deeply regret and mourn this.”
He died early Friday despite an “all-effort rescue” after contracting the virus Jan. 30, according to The People’s Daily, the newspaper of China’s Communist Party.
The World Health Organization tweeted, “We are deeply saddened by the passing of Dr Li Wenliang. We all need to celebrate work that he did” on the virus.
In a posting on social media, Li alerted fellow doctors Dec. 30 about the emergence of a SARS-like illness, warning them to wear protective clothing to avoid infection, the newspaper said. Wuhan is the epicenter of the coronavirus that has claimed 636 lives among more than 30,877 cases. The fatality rate is 2.1 percent; that compares to 9.6 percent for the SARS virus that created similar concern around the globe in 2002.
Four days later, Li was summoned by security police and forced to sign a
letter that accused him of “making false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order,” according to the BBC. Police said he was one of eight people under investigation for “spreading rumors,” the BBC reported.
Authorities later apologized to Li, who became a national hero as a whistleblower as the illness spread.
The chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention told the editor of the state-owned Global Times that China should praise the eight Wuhan whistleblowers.
“They were wise before the outbreak,” though any judgment needs to be backed by scientific evidence, Zeng Guang said.
From his hospital bed, Li broke his police-imposed silence in late January, telling The New York Times in an interview by text message, “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”
Commentary on the social media account of the Supreme People’s Court criticized the police for their actions, saying that although the initial reports by Li and others about a possible SARS outbreak were wrong, they were a useful alert that should have been allowed: “If the public listened to this ‘rumor’ at that time and adopted measures such as wearing a mask, strict disinfection and avoiding going to the wildlife market based on the panic about SARS, this may be a better way for us to prevent and control new pneumonia today.”
Contributing: The Associated Press