As the coronavirus continues to spread, an incident has come to light involving ophthalmologist Dr Li Wenliang, who was present at the very beginning of the epidemic. Chinese authorities barged into his house in the middle of the night asking about a social media post he shared at the beginning of the epidemic.
As reported in The New York Times, Wenliang shared the message “Quarantined in the emergency department” to an online group chat on the evening of December 30, when seven patients were being treated for the then-unknown condition.
A member of the group replied “So frightening. Is SARS coming again?” to Wenliang's message. SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, is also caused by a coronavirus, different from the current one that is now being referred to as the Wuhan coronavirus after the city from which it originated. Wenliang posted a snippet from an RNA analysis, which he believed suggested it was SARS. The new virus shares 87 percent similarity with SARS.
The exchange led to a raid by the authorities on the residence of Wenliang. They wanted to know why he had shared the information. Three days later, he signed a statement that said his warning was “illegal behavior”.
This is not the only incident being reported. Chinese medical professionals appeared to have been discussing the condition since mid-December. As reported by The Washington Post, an anonymous lab technician claimed that the discovery of the Wuhan coronavirus happened on the morning of December 26, well before it became public news.
The demand for secrecy by Chinese authorities might have led to a slower reaction in taking control of the situation at the beginning, a critical time to dramatically keep a lid on the spread of the epidemic. That said, since the news became public, many international experts have praised how forthcoming the Chinese government has been in sharing the information, especially compared to the SARS outbreak of 2003.
The World Health Organization delegation that visited Wuhan on January 20 and 21, for example, commended “the commitment and capacity demonstrated by national, provincial, and Wuhan authorities and by hundreds of local health care workers and public health specialists working to respond to the 2019-nCOV outbreak.”
The coronavirus continues to spread and kill. With over 360 deaths, more people have now died in China of it than of SARS in 2003, and a study estimates that 75,000 people might have contracted the virus in Wuhan.