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Chinese Doctor Who Sounded Early Warning About Coronavirus Dies After Contracting It


A doctor in China who sounded an early warning about the new coronavirus has now died of the illness. The doctor is being mourned in China as a hero. But when he first sounded the alarm in late December, he was detained by police for, quote, "disrupting social order." NPR's global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman is here now in the studio.

Hey, Nurith.


KELLY: So who was this doctor, and how did he come to warn people about coronavirus?

AIZENMAN: Well, his name was Dr. Li Wenliang. He was an eye doctor who worked at the central hospital of Wuhan. That's the city where this outbreak originated. And he described in social media postings on Weibo, which is kind of like a Chinese version of Twitter. He posted there that back in late December, he was privy to some test results that showed seven people in Wuhan had been confirmed to have a coronavirus. Now, the lab report that he shared actually suggested it was the coronavirus that caused SARS - severe acute respiratory syndrome - which caused that major outbreak back in 2002, 2003. This is before authorities had identified that it was this new coronavirus.


AIZENMAN: Still, at the time, that was very concerning. So this is December 30. Dr. Li sent out a message to a chat group that he had with his former medical school classmates giving them a heads-up because he wrote - many of them are now clinicians - and he wanted to let them know this virus might be out there so they could protect themselves. And that chat group post, that's what got him in trouble with authorities.

KELLY: And then he was actually called in by authorities. What happened?

AIZENMAN: Yeah. So Dr. Li wrote that a few days later, on January 3, he was called in by police in Wuhan. And he even posted the reprimand that they gave him and made him sign. It says that his chat group post was a, quote, "falsehood" and that by posting it he had, quote, severely disrupted social order" and broken the law and that if he did it again he would be punished.

KELLY: But did they come around? Because I said he's being mourned as a hero.

AIZENMAN: Right. So Dr. Li was one of multiple medical personnel who had tried to spread word about these worrisome pneumonia cases early on and gotten in trouble. There had even been a report on Chinese television saying that eight people had been, quote, "dealt with," according to the law, for this.

But then later, last month, once Chinese authorities announced that, yeah, this outbreak is happening, many people in China began expressing outrage on social media at how these early whistleblowers had been treated. And China's Supreme Court even issued a commentary that was scathingly critical of the Wuhan police. So there's been a real about-face.

KELLY: And then the terrible twist in the story is he got sick himself?

AIZENMAN: Yes. So he wrote that he had had contact with a patient who had respiratory symptoms. And then not long afterwards, on January 10, Dr. Li got this cough. At first, he was tested, and it came back negative. But his symptoms got worse. He was hospitalized at the same hospital that he works at. And then on February 1, he wrote his last posting on Weibo, saying that he had gotten tested again, and, quote, "the test was positive" - he meant for the new coronavirus.

And then today, there was a series of conflicting reports suggesting that maybe he had died. Then the hospital posted a notice that they were still trying to save him. And then several hours later, the hospital posted that, quote, "an all-out effort to save him was unsuccessful." And it's hard to overstate the outpouring that this has produced in China. You know, millions of people were following it. And Chinese state media says he's leaving behind a wife and a child, another on the way, so there's a lot of sadness. But also, anger - it seems to be a genuine moment of reckoning in China.

KELLY: And just quickly, Nurith, update us where things stand with coronavirus.

AIZENMAN: The case count worldwide has topped 28,000, according to the World Health Organization, and more than 560 deaths, still most of them in China.

KELLY: All right, that is NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman updating us there on the death of a doctor in China who had sounded an early warning about coronavirus.

Thank you, Nurith.

AIZENMAN: Glad to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.