A Chinese doctor who claimed he quietly warned of the coronavirus outbreak that has besieged the country and resulted in hundreds of deaths said he was detained by authorities and eventually sickened.
Li Wenliang shared his concerns via a private chat with his fellow medical school graduates after several patients had contracted something similar to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a respiratory illness that killed hundreds in China from 2002 to 2003, The Washington Post reported.
One patient was quarantined at the Wuhan Central Hospital where Li worked in the capital of Hubei province, the epicenter of the coronavirus. Nearly 500 people have died in China in the weeks since and over 24,000 have been infected, according to a data compiled by researchers from at Johns Hopkins University.
“The diagnosis is finally confirmed,” Li posted Jan. 31 on the social media platform Weibo. He posted an analysis finding “SARS coronavirus” and bacteria colonies in a patient's airways to a chat that members later shared online, the paper said.
Millions are now trapped in several cities across China that have been put on lockdown as authorities continue efforts to contain the spread of the pneumonia-like illness. Li's warning got the attention of Chinese authorities, who accused him and eight other doctors of spreading "rumors."
“The police call on all netizens to not fabricate rumors, not spread rumors, not believe rumors,” Wuhan authorities said.
Li was released on Jan. 3 after signing a document saying he committed "illegal acts," the Post reported. On Jan. 10, he started coughing and was hospitalized two days later. Tests revealed for the virus came back negative but he continued having trouble breathing and moving, according to the newspaper.
The Supreme People’s Court criticized the police for Li's treatment. Wuhan police said via Weibo that Li and the doctors had spread "unverified information."
“If society had at the time believed those ‘rumors,’ and wore masks, used disinfectant and avoided going to the wildlife market as if there were a SARS outbreak, perhaps it would’ve meant we could better control the coronavirus today,” the court said. “Rumors end when there is openness.”
Li's detention possibly dissuaded others in the medical community from opening speaking about the virus, said Wang Guangbao, a surgeon and popular science writer in eastern China.
“The eight posters getting seized made all of us doctors feel we were at risk,” he said, according to the Post.
Li announced the results of his tests on Feb.1, drawing thousands of comments.
“Dr. Li, you are a good doctor with conscience,” one commenter wrote. "The people of the whole country are in solidarity with you."