Two Years On
On the second anniversary of Li Wenliang's death, we remember the brave novel coronavirus whistleblower
Aleksandra Jones | | Quick Read
Li Wenliang was born in 1986 in Beizhen, Liaoning, China. After graduating his high school with a great academic record, he spent seven years training in clinical medicine at Wuhan University School of Medicine in Wuhan, China. His fellow students remember him as fan of basketball. After his graduation in 2011, he worked at the Xiamen Eye Center of Xiamen University, before moving to Wuhan Central Hospital in 2014 to work as an ophthalmologist.
In December 2019, on the same day the Wuhan CDC alerted Wuhan hospitals to "a new type of pneumonia," Li saw a patient's report in which he recognized a SARS coronavirus. He messaged a private group of medical school peers: "7 confirmed cases of SARS were reported [...] from Huanan Seafood Market," and then added, "the latest news is, it has been confirmed that they are coronavirus infections, but the exact virus strain is being subtyped."
When screenshots of his messages were shared widely, he was accused of leaking information and investigated by the Wuhan Public Security Bureau who issued a formal warning against him "publishing untrue statements about seven confirmed SARS cases." He was threatened with prosecution should he try to publish any more sensitive information.
Li contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus on January 8 while treating an infected acute angle-closure glaucoma patient at the hospital. The patient was later reported to be a storekeeper at Huanan Seafood Market, potentially carrying a very high viral load. Two days later Li developed a severe fever and a cough. He checked himself into a hotel to avoid infecting his family. On January 12, Li was admitted to an ICU at Houhu Hospital District, Wuhan Central Hospital. He tested positive for the virus on January 30 and was formally diagnosed on February 1. The day before his formal diagnosis, he took to social media to publish his experience at the police station along with the letter of admonition.
On February 6, Li told a friend that his oxygen saturation was as low as 85 percent. He was then kept alive with the help of ECMO. He was pronounced dead on February 7, 2020, with more than 17 million people watching the live stream for updates on the state of his health. He was 33 years old.
He received many tributes on social media, with the WHO posting on Twitter that it was "deeply saddened by the passing of Dr Li Wenliang." The Wuhan municipal government, the Health Commission of Hubei, and the National Health Commission of China made statements of tribute to Li and condolences to his family. Li was officially honored in April 2020 with a "martyr" title and awarded the May Fourth Medal by the Chinese government.
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