Dr. Li Wenliang, the Chinese physician who first alerted his colleagues to the existence of the coronavirus, was reported dead earlier today. Reports of his death were previously called into question, but BBC News confirms he has has succumbed to the illness based on reports from Chinese state media.
Li worked as an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital when he first pointed out the existence of the virus on December 30. He informed his fellow physicians of the virus’ existence in a group chat and warned them to wear personal protective equipment when handling any cases to help avoid infection.
According to the BBC, the doctor thought — at first — that he was dealing with a small outbreak of SARS, the acute respiratory illness that caused a global epidemic in 2003. He noticed seven patients with an infection, but soon realized the virus was slightly different. He then tried to spread awareness of this new disease, only to be quieted by the authorities.
In an update he posted to Chinese social media site Weibo, Li told his story from his hospital bed, exactly one month after he first detected the coronavirus. He spoke about how he was summoned to the Public Security Bureau, where he was told to sign a letter that confirmed he was “making false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order.” He and eight others were then investigated for spreading rumors.
Li said he later received an apology from local authorities for their treatment of his warnings.
His Weibo post also detailed the progression of his illness. He said he came down with a cough on January 10 and was admitted to the hospital two days later with a fever. He was not diagnosed with coronavirus until January 30 and he passed away a week later.
Chinese social media has been inundated with expressions of grief over Li’s death, offering him prayers.
His death is a bit unusual. Although the coronavirus has killed approximately 560 people, most who have succumbed to the disease have been immunocompromised or in a vulnerable demographic, such as the elderly or young children. In fact, the BBC reports that the majority of coronavirus victims have been over the age of 60 or had a previous medical condition that was exacerbated by the disease. It is unclear as of this writing if Li suffered from anything that could have caused the virus to be more deadly for him.
Current estimates put the number of people infected with the virus at just over 28,000 in mainland China and around 300 reported cases worldwide. The World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus a global health emergency and has urged nations to take the disease seriously to help prevent it from spreading any further.
So far, only two deaths have been reported outside China — one in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines.