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Doctor who sounded alarm about coronavirus dies

Associated Press • Feb 7, 2020 at 2:05 AM

BEIJING — A Chinese doctor who got in trouble with authorities in the communist country for sounding an early warning about the coronavirus outbreak died Friday after coming down with the illness.

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 added.

Li had worked at a hospital in the epicenter of the outbreak in the central city of Wuhan. He was one of eight medical professionals in Wuhan who tried to warn colleagues and others when the government did not, writing on his Twitter-like Weibo account that on Dec. 3 he saw a test sample that indicated the presence of a coronavirus similar to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which killed nearly 800 people in a 2002-2003 outbreak that the government initially tried to cover up.

Li wrote that after he reported seven patients had contracted the virus, he was visited on Jan. 3 by police, who forced him to sign a statement admitting to having spread falsehoods and warning him of punishment if he continued.

A copy of the statement signed by Li and posted online accused him of making “false statements” and “seriously disturbing social order.”

“This is a type of illegal behavior!” the statement said.

The ruling Communist Party said Friday it was sending an investigation team to “fully investigate relevant issues raised by the public” regarding the case.

On Friday, the Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper and usual staunch defender of the authorities, reported that “many said the experience of the eight ‘whistleblowers’ was evidence of local authorities' incompetence to tackle a contagious and deadly virus.”

It quoted Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as telling the paper’s editor that “we should highly praise the eight Wuhan residents.”

"They were wise before the outbreak," Zeng was quoted as saying. The paper quoted one posting as saying, “If his warning could send an alarm, the outbreak might not have continued to worsen.”

“Looking back, his professional sense of vigilance in particular is worthy of our respect,” the paper said in an editorial.

The police action against the eight whistleblowers also garnered a rare and extremely subtle rebuke from the nation’s highest court.

“We have the responsibility to express to society our legal thoughts about solving the problem of rumors,” a posting on the court’s Weibo account said.

The outbreak has now infected over 31,000 people globally, triggering travel restrictions and quarantines around the world and a crisis inside the country of 1.4 billion. The death toll in mainland China rose to 636 on Friday.

41 NEW CASES ON CRUISE SHIP

Japan on Friday reported 41 new cases of the virus on a cruise ship that's been quarantined in Yokohama harbor.

Two docked cruise ships with thousands of passengers and crew members remained under 14-day quarantines in Hong Kong and Japan.

Before Friday's 41 confirmed cases, 20 infected passengers were escorted off the Diamond Princess at Yokohama near Tokyo. About 3,700 people have been confined aboard the ship.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Thursday that Japan will deny entry of foreign passengers on another cruise ship — Holland America's cruise ship Westerdam, on its way to Okinawa from Hong Kong — because of suspected virus patients found on board. The Seattle-based operator denied anyone had the virus.

Abe said the new immigration policy takes effect Friday to ensure border control to prevent the disease from entering and spreading further into Japan.

The ship was currently near Ishigaki, one of Okinawa's outer islands, and was seeking another port, said Overseas Travel Agency official Mie Matsubara. Japanese media reported there were 2,257 people aboard.

"Everyone is starting to reject the ship and we are getting desperate," she said. “We hope we can go somewhere so that passengers can land.”

At least four other cruise ships, two foreign and two Japanese-operated, are headed to Japan by the end of the month, Transport Minister Kazuyoshi Akaba said, urging port authorities around the country to turn them away.

YOUNGEST PATIENT

The baby born last Saturday in Wuhan and confirmed positive just 36 hours after birth became the youngest known person infected with the virus, authorities said. But precisely how the child became infected was unclear.

“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 TV.

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.

NEW DRUG

Testing of a new antiviral drug was set to begin on a group of patients Thursday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The drug, Remdesivir, is made by U.S. biotech company Gilead Sciences.

With the development of a vaccine months, or years, away, researchers are experimenting with the re-purposing of existing drugs used to treat viruses such as HIV.

Antivirals and other drugs can reduce the severity of an illness, but “so far, no antivirals have been proven effective” against the new virus, said Thanarak Plipat, deputy director-general of Thailand’s Disease Control Department in the Health Ministry. He said there are a lot of unknowns, “but we have a lot of hope as well.”

Just days after Chinese scientists shared the genetic map of the culprit, researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health had engineered a possible key ingredient for a vaccine they hope to begin testing by April. Scientists from Australia to France, along with a list of biotech and vaccine companies, jumped in the race, pursuing different types of inoculations.

And Texas researchers froze an experimental vaccine developed too late to fight SARS and are pushing U.S. and Chinese authorities to give it a try this time around. Because the new virus is a close cousin of SARS, it just might protect, said Dr. Peter Hotez of Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital.

For now, health officials are isolating the sick to fight spread of the virus, which causes fever, cough and in severe cases pneumonia.

“RESPOND REASONABLY”

China's official news agency said Friday that President Xi Jinping urged the U.S. to “respond reasonably" to the virus outbreak in a phone call with President Donald Trump.

Beijing has complained that the U.S. was flying its citizens out of Wuhan but not providing any assistance to China.

The White House said Trump “expressed confidence in China’s strength and resilience in confronting the challenge" of the outbreak.

MORE HOSPITAL BEDS

China finished building a second new hospital Thursday to isolate and treat patients — a 1,500-bed center in Wuhan. Earlier this week, another rapidly constructed, 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan with prefabricated wards and isolation rooms began taking patients.

Authorities also moved people with milder symptoms into makeshift hospitals at sports arenas, exhibition halls and other public spaces.

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

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