In a WeChat group composed of alumni from his medical school, Li Wenliang, 34, announced on Dec. 30 that seven patients from a local seafood market had been diagnosed with an illness similar to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS-CoV), a disease that affected 8,000 people from 26 countries in 2003.
Citing a test result, Li explained that the pathogen involved was a coronavirus — a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases like SARS and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV).
While he had informed his friends to warn their loved ones privately, screenshots of his messages went viral several hours later.
It was at that point when he realized he had put himself in trouble.
“When I saw them circulating online, I realized that it was out of my control and I would probably be punished,” Li told CNN.
On Dec. 31, health officials in Wuhan held an emergency meeting to discuss the “unknown pneumonia” that affected individuals at Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market the day before.
Shortly after, they summoned Li from his hospital to explain why he had shared the information.
By Jan. 3, Li found himself at a local police station, being reprimanded for “spreading rumors online” and “severely disrupting social order.”
However, that message had already gone viral before he managed to send a subsequent text informing that the virus was a different type of coronavirus.
Li, who was forced to sign a statement admitting “illegal behavior,” was allowed to leave the station an hour later.
Li, an ophthalmologist, started coughing after treating a patient with glaucoma on Jan. 10. Little did he know that she already carried the virus, which was likely transmitted by her daughter, according to The New York Times.
By Jan. 12, Li himself became a patient at the hospital. His signs and symptoms were so severe that he had to be put in the intensive care unit.
Li was ultimately diagnosed with the 2019-nCoV on Feb. 1. At this point, the local government of Wuhan had received wide criticism for mishandling the outbreak.
“For the late disclosure, I hope everyone can understand that this is an infectious disease, and relevant information has special channels to be disclosed in accordance with law,” Mayor Zhou Xianwang, who offered to resign from his post, told CCTV.
Shortly after, China’s Supreme Court commented, according to the Washington Post: “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.”
Following his experience with the local police, Li is relieved that the Supreme Court appears to be on his side, along with other “rumormongers” Wuhan authorities had vowed to treat with “zero tolerance.”