He Warned of Coronavirus. Here’s What He Told Us Before He Died.

The doctor who was among the first to warn about the coronavirus outbreak in late December — only to be silenced by the police — died Friday after becoming infected with the virus, the hospital treating him reported.

The death of the 34-year-old doctor, Li Wenliang, set off an outpouring of grief and anger on social media, with commenters on social media demanding an apology from the authorities to Dr. Li and his family.


Credit…Li Wenliang, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Last week, Elsie Chen, a Times researcher working with our correspondents Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers, interviewed Dr. Li. He caught the virus from a patient and was hospitalized when Ms. Chen interviewed him on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, via the WeChat social media platform.

Here are some edited and condensed excerpts from the interview.

When did you first realize that this new virus was highly contagious? It seemed that you hadn’t taken any precautions when you were infected.

I knew it when the patient I came in contact with infected her family, and I was infected right afterward. Thus I discovered it was highly contagious. The patient had no symptoms, so I got careless.

  • What do you need to know? Start here.

    Updated Feb. 5, 2020

    • Where has the virus spread?
      You can track its movement with this map.
    • How is the United States being affected?
      There have been at least a dozen cases. American citizens and permanent residents who fly to the United States from China are now subject to a two-week quarantine.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      Several countries, including the United States, have discouraged travel to China, and several airlines have canceled flights. Many travelers have been left in limbo while looking to change or cancel bookings.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands is the most important thing you can do.

On Dec. 31, when you told people in the WeChat group about the SARS-like virus, did you do so because you had seen the high risk of human-to-human transmission?

I suspected that, and it’s always better to be cautious and take protective measures.

Why were you so suspicious at that point? Had you already received any news or heard anything?

Because there were already patients being treated under quarantine.

Was that at the end of December?


Were there other doctors who shared the information and reminded others to protect themselves from this mysterious pneumonia?

There were discussions among our colleagues.

What was everybody talking about? How did they evaluate the situation at that point?

It was that SARS might come back. We needed to be ready for it mentally. Take protective measures.

Looking back at what has happened, do you think the situation would be very different now if the Wuhan government hadn’t stopped you from warning others and sharing the information? Do you think it would have been better if the information had been more public and transparent, for the public and for doctors?

If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.

How did you feel when the police accused you of spreading rumors?

The police believed this virus was not confirmed to be SARS. They believed I was spreading rumors. They asked me to acknowledge that I was at fault.

I felt I was being wronged, but I had to accept it. Obviously I had been acting out of good will. I felt very sad seeing so many people losing their loved ones.

Why did you decide to become a doctor? What made you proud to be one? Can you say anything about your family?

I thought it was a very stable job. Lately, patient-doctor relationships have soured. I am happy as long as my patients are satisfied with their treatment.

My older child is 4 years and 10 months old. The younger one is still unborn, due in June. I miss my family. I talk to them by video.

How long will it take you to recover? What do you plan to do afterward?

I started coughing on Jan. 10. It will take me another 15 days or so to recover. I will join medical workers in fighting the epidemic. That’s where my responsibilities lie.