Wuhan — The doctor who told his medical school alumni group about a possible new coronavirus, and who was warned by the authorities to keep quiet, tested positive for it a few days ago.

Dr Li Wenliang, 34, had told the group via WeChat as early as Dec 30 about seven patients who had shown the same symptoms as those with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars). The authorities warned him to keep quiet when his text messages, which included his name, went viral.

Dr Li, who is based in Wuhan, had texted on the group chat to warn his classmates to be careful after he had seen the seven patients from one of Wuhan’s seafood markets fall sick and be placed under quarantine.

While he told his classmates to warn their loved ones privately, screenshots of his messages — including his name — went viral online. According to CNN on Tuesday (Feb 4), Dr Li said: “When I saw them circulating online, I realised that it was out of my control and I would probably be punished.”

Dr Li and a number of other medical personnel were soon accused of rumor-mongering although they were trying to warn the public about the new virus.

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The news that he has now contracted the virus (2019-nCov) has angered many Chinese, who are now speaking out on the censorship that covered the early days of the outbreak as well as the delays in public information.

The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission had, in fact, issued an emergency notice on Dec 30, the same day Dr Li sent his messages to his friends. The notice said that patients from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market were suffering from “unknown pneumonia” but it was accompanied by a warning: “Any organisations or individuals are not allowed to release treatment information to the public without authorisation.”

By the following day, Dr Li was asked to appear before officials of his hospital to explain his knowledge of patients with the new virus, even as the city authorities made a formal announcement about it and informed the World Health Organization (WHO).

The doctor was given a reprimand by the police two days later for “spreading rumours online” and “severely disrupting social order” in his WeChat messages. Later, he was made to sign a statement that he had committed a “misdemeanour” and that he pledged to not continue doing “unlawful acts”.

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Dr Li told CNN that he was afraid he would be sent to jail. The news agency said he communicated via text, as he could not speak on the phone due to severe coughing and difficulty breathing.

After the police reprimand, the doctor went back to work at the Wuhan Central Hospital. He treated a patient on Jan 10 but did not know that the latter was already unwell with the virus. The doctor began to run a fever and started coughing a few days later. He was admitted to hospital on Jan 12. He later became so ill he had to be moved to the intensive care unit and be given oxygen.

According to the BBC on Tuesday (Feb 4), Dr Li said he was tested for the virus a number of times, all of which were negative. It added that he posted on Weibo a few days ago that: “Today nucleic acid testing came back with a positive result, the dust has settled, finally diagnosed.”

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Dr Li has received thousands of messages of support and thanks on his account.

One netizen wrote: “Dr Li Wenliang is a hero. In the future, doctors will be more afraid to issue early warnings when they find signs of infectious diseases. A safer public health environment … requires tens of millions of Li Wenliang.”

Another wrote: “Dr Li, you’re a good doctor with conscience. I hope you stay safe and sound.”

One person noted: “If Wuhan had paid attention to (his warning) back then and taken active preventive measures where we stand now a month later could be a completely different picture.” /TISG

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