Outrage and Grief Follow Death of Coronavirus Whistleblower
Outrage and Grief Follow Death of Coronavirus Whistleblower

Outrage and Grief Follow Death of Coronavirus Whistleblower

Authorities had silenced Li Wenliang after he spoke out about the virus, now known as 2019-nCoV, in the early days of the epidemic.

Amy Schleunes
Feb 7, 2020
ABOVE: © ISTOCK, ROBERT WEI

Li Wenliang, a Chinese ophthalmologist who voiced an early warning about the coronavirus that has since infected more than 31,000 people, died today (February 7) after contracting the disease himself, according to People’s Daily. The New York Times reports that Li’s attempts to warn the Wuhan community about the virus early on were shut down by local police and medical officials. Li was 34 years old, married, and expecting his second child.

“A hero who released information about Wuhan’s epidemic in the early stage, Dr. Li Wenliang is immortal,” writes Zen Guang, chief scientist at the China Center for Disease Control, on the Sina Weibo microblog service, according to the Associated Press

“We will not forget the doctor who spoke up about an illness that was called rumor,” one person commented in reaction to an announcement of Li’s death on Weibo by Wuhan City Central Hospital, where Li had worked as an ophthalmologist and was being treated, according to the Times. “What else can we do? The only thing is not to forget.”

On December 30, Li had posted a warning to an online chat room about seven quarantined patients who exhibited symptoms resembling those of SARS, according to another article by the Times. A few days later, the police forced him to sign a statement declaring that his post about the virus was an illegal rumor that had “severely disturbed the social order,” reports the BBC. On January 10, he became infected after treating a glaucoma patient who had the virus. His diagnosis was confirmed on January 30.

Li later gave interviews from the hospital, telling the Times via 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.”

More than 600 people have now died from the coronavirus, almost all of them in mainland China. The Associated Press reports in another article that a baby born in China last Saturday (February 1) became the youngest known person to have contracted 2019-nCoV. In Hong Kong and Japan, nearly 8,000 people were quarantined on docked cruise ships after some passengers were confirmed to have the virus.

A rapidly constructed 1,000-bed hospital opened in Wuhan earlier this week, and a second new hospital with 1,500 beds was completed on Thursday (February 6), according to the AP, the same day when testing for a new antiviral drug made by Gilead Sciences was set to begin.

Amy Schleunes is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at aschleunes@the-scientist.com.