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Coronavirus Whistleblower Dies From The Disease In China

Coronavirus patients settle down in a large temporary hospital built two days ago in an exhibition center in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province. At another area hospital, a doctor who gave an early warning on social media about the virus has died.

Updated at 9:20 p.m. ET

A Chinese doctor who was among the first to blow the whistle on the new coronavirus has died from the disease, the hospital treating him said on social media early Friday local time.

Li Wenliang, 34, an ophthalmologist based in Wuhan, was reprimanded in early January by local police authorities for "publishing falsehoods" after he mentioned in a WeChat group seven cases of a virus similar to SARS from a seafood market.

News of Li's death has triggered millions of reactions on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter. Most posts mourned him, called him a hero and commented with candle emojis, some with mourning poems. When Li was in critical condition late Thursday and early Friday local time, millions of people flocked to a livestream operated by local media outside the hospital, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Among the outpouring of grief, some asked for accountability and transparency surrounding his treatment and the larger picture of authorities' response to the virus.

The topics "Wuhan government owes Dr. Li Wenliang an apology" and "We want freedom of speech" soon began to trend on Weibo, before being deleted, CNN reported.

In a now-deleted interview with Beijing Youth Daily in late January, Li said that the report on SARS is not entirely accurate, although he didn't mean to be misleading. He also didn't mean to spread the information widely.

But he was trying to warn his old classmates, many of whom were practicing clinicians. He said he was later infected after treating a female patient with "unknown pneumonia."

On his personal Weibo account one week before he died, Li recounted his journey from seeing the coronavirus test result, to being reprimanded by the authorities for disrupting the social order, to being hospitalized.

"I was hospitalized on the 12th. At that time, I was still wondering, 'Why is there no announcement of people-to-people transmission, and why are no medical workers getting infected?'" he wrote.

He was diagnosed with coronavirus the next day. "The dust is settled now."

Li's death has prompted condolences from state media, including the People's Daily and theGlobal Times.

Michael Ryan, head of the World Health Organization's emergencies program said, "We're very sad to hear of the loss of Dr. Li Wenliang. We're very sorry to hear of the loss of any front line worker who's attempted to care for patients. And we ourselves have lost our friends in the front lines. So we should celebrate his life and mourn his death with his colleagues."

Li leaves behind one child and his wife, who is pregnant.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 6, 2020 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this story mistakenly said Li Wenliang's death was reported on social media by the hospital treating him on Thursday. It was reported early Friday local time.
Huo Jingnan
Huo Jingnan (she/her) is an assistant producer on NPR's investigations team.