‘Silenced’ Chinese Doc Dead From Coronavirus
A Chinese physician sanctioned for purportedly “spreading rumors” when he sounded an early alarm about a SARS-like illness cropping up in Wuhan, has now died of the novel coronavirus, according to reports by the New York Times and others.
Throughout the day, conflicting reports had circulated online regarding the status of Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist who practiced at the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
On Thursday morning (U.S. Eastern Time), Chinese social media erupted with reports that Li had died, which were quickly repeated by Western media. But Wuhan City Central Hospital, where Li was being treated, put out a statement that Li was in intensive care and “all effort to save him” was underway.
A short time later, the hospital sent out an update with news of his death.
“We’re very sad to hear of the loss of Dr. Li Wenliang. We’re very sorry to hear the loss of any frontline worker who had attempted to care for patients,” said Michael Ryan, MD, executive director of the World Health Organization (WHO) emergencies program, when asked about the news during a press conference on Thursday following the initial and apparently premature reports of Li’s death. “We should celebrate his life and mourn his death with his colleagues.”
In late December, Li Wenliang warned alumni from his medical school in a private WeChat group that a number of patients with symptoms similar to SARS had been quarantined in his hospital. When screenshots of his messages went viral, Wuhan police punished the young doctor — reported to have been age 34 — for “spreading rumors online.”
In early January, Li developed symptoms of the novel virus — currently dubbed 2019-nCoV — and soon landed in the hospital, where his condition quickly deteriorated.
According to Human Rights Watch, Chinese authorities have detained dozens over online posts related to the novel coronavirus as it attempts to control information there.
When reporters pressed WHO officials on whether China may have been hiding early cases of the novel coronavirus, Ryan said that from the WHO’s perspective, China reported the first clusters of the illness and the associations with the Wuhan market in an “extremely timely fashion.”
“It’s very difficult at this stage to look retrospectively and reimagine what the dynamics of the epidemic were in late December, early January,” he said. “Chinese authorities had a special surveillance system in place for picking up unusual types of pneumonia, the system was active in Wuhan. As soon as that system was activated with a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases, they were reported immediately to WHO and subsequent laboratory investigations were undertaken.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Ph.D., MSc, pointed out that China is the most connected country in the world and that cases of the illness would have emerged in other countries if there was any serious effort to hide an outbreak within China.
“China may be able to hide what’s happening inside, but cannot hide the number of cases in other countries,” he said, noting that when cases were first being reported in China there were still no cases in the rest of the world. Even as the case count increased within its borders and WHO declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), cases in other countries still numbered under 100.
Ryan added that with the millions of people living in Wuhan, picking out a signal of unusual pneumonia is not an easy thing to do.
“The signal was picked up from a very large signal of winter disease and winter pneumonia and that was reported to us by public health authorities and for that we’re grateful,” he said.
“It’s very difficult, given the facts, to say that China was hiding,” Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “Many Chinese travel and many cases would have made it [out of the country] if there was a delay.”
As of Thursday morning, 28,353 cases of the novel coronavirus were reported globally, including 565 deaths. Outside of mainland China, there have been 225 cases across 24 countries, with two deaths. Twelve cases have been confirmed in the U.S., but no deaths.
During the press briefing, Ryan noted that today was the first day where the new case count was lower than the day prior, but with close to 4,000 new cases overnight it was still “nothing to celebrate.”
In order to learn from the outbreak, Adhanom Ghebreyesus said WHO would conduct an after-action review with China to see what transpired from the first signs of the virus to the end.