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Chinese Doctor Who Issued Early Warning on Virus Dies

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 2/7/2020 Chao Deng, Josh Chin
a group of people sitting on a bed © Yuan Zheng/Utuku/Ropi/Zuma Press

WUHAN, China—A Chinese doctor who became a folk hero after he was arrested for warning about the dangers of the deadly new virus now spreading around the world died on Friday after becoming infected with it.

Li Wenliang, a 33-year-old ophthalmologist based in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, had captivated the country and triggered an extraordinary outpouring of emotion as he ailed.

In social-media posts, many Chinese directed their frustration at government officials who many believe didn’t respond quickly enough despite clear evidence of the developing epidemic. Millions of people flocked to a live stream about Dr. Li that was run by local media outside the hospital where he was being treated.

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“An all-out effort to save him was unsuccessful,” the hospital said. “We deeply grieve the loss.”

At the end of the day Thursday, China’s National Health Commission reported 31,161 confirmed cases in China, with 636 deaths. Singapore, which has the second-largest number of cases outside China, reported two new infections, including one with no apparent link to China.

Chinese state media reported Thursday night that Dr. Li’s heart had stopped at around 9:30 p.m., and that he was immediately put on life support. The hospital where Dr. Li was being treated later said authorities were still fighting to keep him alive and then announced his death at 2:58 a.m. Friday.

After initial reports of Dr. Li’s death began circulating online late Thursday in China, including from the official social-media accounts of Communist Party publications, he was mourned and celebrated as a symbol of the public’s determination to find answers to still-unanswered questions about how officials first responded to the outbreak.

In an interview with the Communist Party-controlled Beijing Youth Daily newspaper in late January, Dr. Li recalled seeing reports in December of an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases linked to an animal market in Wuhan.

On Dec. 30, Dr. Li told the newspaper, he sent a message to former classmates on WeChat, a popular messaging app, warning them of new cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. He later corrected that, saying it was an unknown coronavirus.

Dr. Li was later interrogated by party disciplinary officials and hospital management, who accused him of spreading rumors and forced him to write a self-criticism, he told the newspaper.

“They told me not to publish any information about this online,” Dr. Li told the Beijing Youth Daily in late January. “Later, the epidemic started to spread noticeably. I’d personally been treating someone who was infected, and whose family got infected, and so then I got infected.”

In speaking out about the virus and about government efforts to silence him, Dr. Li drew comparisons to Jiang Yanyong, a surgeon who became a hero after blowing the whistle on Beijing’s efforts to cover up the extent of the SARS crisis in 2003. But people following the outbreak believe sickened medical staff in Wuhan number in the hundreds.

The Wuhan government doesn’t disclose the number of infected medical staff. To date, the most notable indication of infections among the medical community has come from Zhong Nanshan, another prominent doctor and a veteran of the 2003 SARS crisis, who disclosed in January that 14 medical staff had been infected by one patient.

Uncertainty hovered over Dr. Li’s status late Thursday night and early Friday morning, with elegies pouring in even as the hospital said he was still receiving emergency life support.

Some of the earliest reports of his death came from state media outlets’ social-media accounts, which sought to immediately venerate him, reflecting the confusion and contradictions that have dogged the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus throughout the outbreak.

The English- and Chinese-language Twitter accounts of People’s Daily, the main Communist Party newspaper, were among the first to praise Dr. Li as a “whistleblower.” Within hours, the posts were deleted.

Instead, the Global Times, a nationalistic Communist Party newspaper, reported that Dr. Li was in critical condition several hours after his heart had reportedly stopped beating. He was then put on an artificial respirator.

Two editors at Chinese news media outlets said they received a notice to play down the death of Dr. Li by only reporting official announcements.

Meantime, thousands of users flooded Weibo demanding the Wuhan police offer a formal apology to Dr. Li. “Apologize to people all over the nation,” wrote one user.

“It happened so suddenly,” one doctor in Wuhan who knew Dr. Li said in a phone interview late Thursday night. “Humans are like ants sometimes. We are too small. It is such a hard blow to the frontline. Now our workmates are all very devastated.”

“Our hope is gone,” said another doctor in the city. “He was our hero.”

“We are very sad to hear of the loss of Dr. Li Wenliang,” Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program, said at a press conference in Geneva on Thursday. “We should celebrate his life and mourn his death with his colleagues.”

As confusion swirled about Dr. Li’s condition, more than 17 million people were watching the live stream for updates on Dr. Li’s status by 1:49 a.m. on Friday morning.

Under a post by the hospital about Dr. Li’s condition, a Weibo user wrote: “No sleep tonight!!! Waiting online for a miracle,” a comment that drew more than 334,000 likes.

Dr. Li, who was married with one child and another on the way, caught the dangerous new virus before Chinese authorities had stepped up its warnings about it. In the early days, he recalled, he didn’t wear any protective gear.

In several interviews with Chinese media while he was hospitalized, Dr. Li described how he was infected by a female patient who saw him for glaucoma in the second week of January. She had developed a fever and a CT scan showed an unknown virus in her lung. Two of her family members were also sick.

“It was such an obvious case of human-to-human transmission,” Dr. Li said, adding that he reported it to hospital officials right away.

A few days later, Dr. Li started coughing and his temperature rose. He booked a room in a hotel, worried that his child and his pregnant wife would be infected. A CT scan confirmed his fear; he was infected, and was hospitalized on Jan. 12, he wrote in a Weibo post last week, though he wasn’t counted as a confirmed case until Feb. 1, he said, nearly three weeks after he first showed symptoms.

The hospital put him under quarantine. Around the same time, he learned that his parents and some colleagues were infected as well.

“I was thinking then why the official announcement was still saying there had been no transmission between humans and of medical staff,” he wrote in his Weibo post.

Dr. Li, who had become less active on social media in recent days, liked an online poll on Weibo on Feb. 3 about whether people were back to work after vacation. According to a friend, the technology-obsessed Dr. Li’s online posts ranged from foldable Huawei mobile devices to hidden tricks with the iPhone, funny cat videos and pictures of his breakfast.

Even after he became infected, Dr. Li vowed to return to the front lines of the fight against the virus.

“The outbreak is still spreading,” he wrote on his verified account on Tencent News. “I don’t want to be a deserter.”

Write to Chao Deng at Chao.Deng@wsj.com and Josh Chin at josh.chin@wsj.com

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