Chinese doctor who sounded the alarm about coronavirus dies from the illness

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A Chinese doctor who got in trouble with authorities for sounding an early warning about the coronavirus outbreak died after coming down with the illness Friday, a hospital reported.

The Wuhan Central Hospital said on its social media account that Dr. Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist, was “unfortunately infected during the fight against the pneumonia epidemic of the new coronavirus infection.”

“We deeply regret and mourn this,” it said.

Li was reprimanded by local police for “spreading rumours” about the illness in late December, according to news reports. The outbreak, centred in Wuhan, has now infected over 28,200 people globally and killed more than 560, according to latest figures released by the World Health Organization (WHO).

He had told a group of doctors on Chinese social media and messaging platform WeChat that seven cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) had been confirmed linked to a seafood market in Wuhan, believed to be the source of the virus.

Within a half-hour of announcing earlier Friday that Li was in critical condition, the hospital received nearly 500,000 comments on its social media post, many of them from people hoping Li would pull through. One wrote: “We are not going to bed. We are here waiting for a miracle.”

Li was among a number of medical professionals in Wuhan who tried to warn colleagues and others when the government did not, the New York Times reported earlier this week. It said that after the mystery illness had stricken seven patients at a hospital, Li said of them in the online chat group Dec. 30: “Quarantined in the emergency department.”

Another participant in the chat responded by wondering, “Is SARS coming again?” — a reference to the 2002-03 viral outbreak that killed hundreds, the newspaper said.

Wuhan health officials summoned Li in the middle of the night to explain why he shared the information, and police later forced him to sign a statement admitting to “illegal behaviour,” the Times said.

“If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier,” Li said in an interview in the Times via text messages, “I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”

Newborn infected

Meanwhile, a newborn became the youngest known person infected with the virus, with the child confirmed positive just 36 hours after birth, authorities said.

“The baby was immediately separated from the mother after the birth and has been under artificial feeding. There was no close contact with the parents, yet it was diagnosed with the disease,” Zeng Lingkong, director of neonatal diseases at Wuhan Children’s Hospital, told Chinese media.

Zeng said other infected mothers have given birth to babies who tested negative, so it is not yet known if the virus can be transmitted in the womb. That “needs further study,” he said.

Also on Thursday, China finished building a second new hospital to isolate and treat patients and moved people with milder symptoms into makeshift quarantine centres at sports arenas, exhibition halls and other public spaces. 

A view inside the Wuhan International Conference and Exhibition Centre on Tuesday. Health authorities started converting three existing venues into make-shift hospitals to receive patients infected with the coronavirus. (Getty Images)

The 1,500-bed hospital specially built to deal with the outbreak was completed in Wuhan, days after a 1,000-bed hospital with prefabricated wards and isolation rooms began taking patients.

Wuhan is also operating an additional 132 quarantine sites with more than 12,500 beds, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Authorities are racing to increase the number of beds in Wuhan and the rest of hard-hit Hubei province, where the health care system has been so overwhelmed that some sick people have been turned away from hospitals and sent home, raising the risk of their spreading the virus to others.

All together, more than 50 million people are under virtual quarantine in Hubei in an unprecedented — and unproven — bid to bring the outbreak under control.

In Hong Kong, hospital workers demanding a shutdown of the territory’s border with mainland China were on strike for a fourth day. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced a 14-day quarantine of all travelers entering the city from the mainland starting Saturday, but the government has refused to seal the border entirely.

Chinese medical workers and security personnel stand at a checkpoint as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Anqing on Thursday. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

While the overwhelming majority of deaths and infections haven been in China, more than 200 people with the illness have been reported in over two dozen other countries, including Japan, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea and the United States.

China’s National Health Commission said the number of infected patients who were “discharged and cured” stood at 1,153. No details were given, but milder cases have been seen in younger, healthier people.

The new virus is in the coronavirus family that includes MERS and SARS, and it causes fever, cough, shortness of breath and, in severe cases, pneumonia.

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