Wuhan Whistleblower Doctor Dies From Coronavirus As Death Toll Spikes to 565

A doctor in Wuhan who was reprimanded for warning people about the new coronavirus strain that originated in China has died.

Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor, died Thursday night local time, according to The Washington Post. Li was hospitalized about three weeks earlier after developing symptoms in line with the new coronavirus and tested positive for it on Saturday.

The virus, which has infected more than 28,000 people and has killed more than 560 people, was first identified in humans in December when multiple people in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, were treated for pneumonia-like symptoms. Since the first 44 cases were reported, the virus has spread to 24 other countries and killed 565 people, according to WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. On Wednesday, WHO reported 492 deaths.

Days before his death, Li explained to CNN that he attempted to warn his friends about the virus before Chinese authorities reported it to the World Health Organization (WHO). In a message to his medical school alumni group on WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging app, he said seven people were diagnosed with an illness similar to severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

In 2002 and 2003, SARS, a coronavirus that also originated in China, killed 774 people and infected 8,098, according to CNN. China's decision to withhold information about the outbreak made them a target of heavy criticism at the time and raised concerns about authorities' ability to be transparent with the new coronavirus.

coronavirus doctor wuhan dead death toll
A woman walks past abandoned shared bicycles in the deserted central business district in Beijing on Friday. On Thursday, a doctor in Wuhan, China, who tried to warn people about the virus passed away from the virus. Greg Baker/AFP/Getty

Despite skepticism from the public and an admission from Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang that information was not disclosed in a "timely" manner, WHO officials have thrown their support behind China. On January 29, Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, told reporters that when he drew on his "direct operational experience" dealing with SARS, there was "no comparison" to China's current behavior.

"Before we start pointing the finger at China, we need to recognize there are genuine sensitivities around sharing data around new diseases, and I believe, in this case, the countries that have been affected, including China, have been remarkably transparent in this regard," Ryan said.

Li intended for the message to serve as a warning to his classmates to "be careful" and give them a chance to warn their loved ones privately. However, it quickly circulated on social media and on January 3, he was called into the local police station. Officers reprimanded him for "spreading rumors online" and "severely disrupting social order" and forced him to sign a statement promising he would not commit additional "unlawful acts."

"There was nothing I could do," Li told CNN. "[Everything] has to adhere to the official line."

Li, who worked at Wuhan Central Hospital, was admitted to the hospital after he treaded a patient on January 10. Days later, on January 12, he was admitted to the intensive care unit and given oxygen, according to CNN, because his condition, which began with a cough and a fever, deteriorated.

The 34-year-old's decision to speak out about the virus has made him a national hero and BBC reported a number of people posted messages of grief over his death on Chinese social media sites.

"We're very sad to hear of the loss of Dr. Li Wenliang," Ryan said Thursday. "We're very sorry to hear the loss of any frontline worker who has attempted to care for patients ... So we should celebrate his life and mourn his death with his colleagues."