Chinese doctor silenced by police over outbreak warning diagnosed with coronavirus

Ross McGuinness
·6-min read

A Chinese doctor who was silenced by police for warning about the coronavirus outbreak has been diagnosed with the disease.

Li Wenliang, 34, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, sent a message in a chat group on 30 December to fellow doctors warning them of an outbreak.

Dr Li Wenliang has been diagnosed with coronavirus after trying to warn others about the spread of the disease (Picture: Weibo)
Dr Li Wenliang has been diagnosed with coronavirus after trying to warn others about the spread of the disease (Weibo)

He wrote: “Quarantined in the emergency department”, according to the New York Times.

He had noticed seven cases of a virus he thought looked like Sars, the virus which sparked a global epidemic in 2003.

Dr Li Wenliang was silenced by Chinese police after warning about the coronavirus outbreak (Picture: Weibo)
Dr Li Wenliang was silenced by Chinese police after warning about the coronavirus outbreak (Weibo)

The patients he treated were quarantined in his hospital and thought to have come from the seafood market in Wuhan where the outbreak is believed to have originated.

But four days after his warning he was called to a police station to sign a letter in which he was accused of “making false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order”.

He was one of eight people identified by police for allegedly “spreading rumours”.

However, at the end of January, Dr Li published a copy of the letter on social network Weibo.

The letter Dr Li Wenliang was told to sign by police (Picture: Weibo)
The letter Dr Li Wenliang was told to sign by police (Weibo)

He described in his post how he started coughing on 10 January, then suffered a fever the next day and two days later was in hospital himself. His parents also became ill and were taken to hospital, he said.

It wasn’t until 20 January that China declared the coronavirus outbreak an emergency.

Dr Li posted 10 days later that he had been diagnosed with coronavirus.

Speaking to CNN via a messaging service from his hospital bed because he was coughing too much to speak on the phone, Dr Li said he had feared he would be detained.

"My family would worry sick about me, if I lose my freedom for a few days," he said.

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On 30 January, he posted: “Today nucleic acid testing came back with a positive result, the dust has settled, finally diagnosed,” the BBC reported.

The revelation over how the doctor was silenced came as Chinese leaders admitted “shortcomings and deficiencies” in the country’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

A meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, chaired by president Xi Jinping, was reported by the official Xinhua news agency.

The report read: “In response to the shortcomings and deficiencies that were exposed responding to this epidemic, we must improve our national emergency management system and improve our abilities in handling urgent and dangerous tasks.”

On Tuesday, officials announced that the death toll in mainland China had risen to 425, with the total number of cases at 20,438 – an increase from the 361 deaths and 17,205 cases reported a day earlier.

A 39-year-old man has become the first coronavirus death reported in Hong Kong.The man travelled to Hong Kong from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak in China.

Has China learned its lesson?

The emergence of the new virus has brought back painful memories of another virulent respiratory disease that wreaked worldwide havoc and left the country’s health authorities struggling to rebuild public trust.

And China appears keen for the world to be convinced it has changed.

In 2003, China was accused of trying to cover up a major outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a previously unknown virus believed to have emerged from the wet markets of Guangdong province before spreading into major cities. As many as 774 people died in an epidemic that reached nearly 30 countries.

Now, nearly 17 years later, government officials insist they have learned from past mistakes as they try to contain coronavirus.

Liu Heng, an adviser to China’s cabinet said it took the country about four or five months to announce the SARS outbreak to the public, and this time it had taken less than a month.

The Xiaotangshan Hospital in Beijing, which was used to quarantine patients during the SARS epidemic, is being renovated for possible use during China's current virus outbreak. (Peng Ziyang/Xinhua via AP)
The Xiaotangshan Hospital in Beijing, which was used to quarantine patients during the SARS epidemic, is being renovated for possible use during China's current virus outbreak. (Peng Ziyang/Xinhua via AP)

“We are doing much better now... We are paying greater attention to preventing the epidemic,” he said.

Experts say the failures of SARS were caused by an under-resourced and overcentralised health system with little experience of infectious diseases and no information disclosure mechanisms.

Beijing has since established the China Information System for Disease Control and Prevention that hooks up hospitals and clinics nationwide and reports outbreaks in real time. It has also set up specific mechanisms for new pneumonia strains.

The World Health Organisation has since praised China for its “commitment to transparency, and the efforts made to investigate and contain the current outbreak”.

However, it is clear that some people in China believe officials are cracking down on those who spread news about the disease online.

Social media is still awash with cover-up claims, and some doubts are still being expressed about the accuracy and timeliness of China’s data.

Writing in the prestigious, peer-reviewed health journal The Lancet, scientists from the University of Hong Kong have warned more than 75,000 people could have battled the infection in the city Wuhan alone.

Did virus originate in bats?

Chinese scientists said they have more evidence that the coronavirus probably originated in bats.

In a study published in the journal Nature, Shi Zhen-Li and colleagues at the Wuhan Institute of Virology reported that genome sequences from seven patients were 96% identical to a bat coronavirus.

Scientists suspect the outbreak began at a seafood market in Wuhan where wild animals were on sale and in contact with people.

Workers set up beds at an exhibition centre that was converted into a hospital in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on February 4, 2020. - The Wuhan government said it plans to convert three existing venues, including a gymnasium and an exhibition centre, into hospitals to take in patients with mild symptoms of the new coronavirus that has so far claimed more than 400 lives. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Workers set up beds at an exhibition centre that was converted into a hospital in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province (AFP/Getty)
A doctor speaks with a patient during an online consultation session at a hospital in Shenyang in China's northeastern Liaoning province on February 4, 2020, amid an outbreak of a deadly SARS-like virus which began in the city of Wuhan. - The hospital provides the free online service to relieve the stress of face-to-face outpatient services and to avoid cross infection. The number of total infections in China's coronavirus outbreak has passed 20,400 nationwide with 3,235 new cases confirmed, the National Health Commission said on February 4. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
A doctor speaks with a patient during an online consultation session at a hospital in Shenyang in China (AFP/Getty)

British officials are still trying to trace 239 people who flew from the Chinese city of Wuhan to the UK before travel restrictions associated with the coronavirus came into force.

Efforts to track down and assess the travellers, who left Wuhan after the virus emerged, began last week as the crisis intensified, leading British Airways and Virgin Atlantic to suspend UK-China flights.

A total of 94 UK nationals and family members have been evacuated to Britain from Wuhan, the city in Hubei province at the epicentre of the outbreak, on two flights which arrived on Friday and Sunday.

A general view of the two blocks at Arrowe Park Hospital in Merseyside, where British nationals from the coronavirus-hit city of Wuhan in China are being quarantined. (Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images)
The two blocks at Arrowe Park Hospital in Merseyside, where British nationals from the coronavirus-hit city of Wuhan in China are being quarantined (PA/Getty)

Evacuees are now undergoing 14 days in quarantine at Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral.

One person was taken to a different UK hospital after falling ill on the second flight back.

The Department of Health said on Monday that 326 UK tests for coronavirus have concluded, of which 324 are negative.

Two people, a University of York student and one of their relatives, continue to be treated for coronavirus in the specialist infectious diseases unit at Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary.

Additional reporting from Reuters