As word of a mysterious virus mounted, Li Wenliang shared suspicions in a private chat with his fellow medical school graduates.

The doctor said that seven people seemed to have contracted SARS — the respiratory illness that spread from China to more than two dozen countries and left hundreds dead in the early 2000s. One patient was quarantined at his hospital in Wuhan, Li said. He urged people to be careful.

Li and seven other doctors were quickly summoned by Chinese authorities for propagating “rumors” about SARS-like cases in the area — but their warnings were prescient. Soon, health officials around the world would be scrambling to combat a novel virus with a striking genetic resemblance to SARS.

The outbreak in Wuhan has exploded to more than 20,000 confirmed cases just in China.

Among the ill: the ophthalmologist who was censured for sounding an early alarm.

“The diagnosis is finally confirmed,” Li posted Jan. 31 on the social media platform Weibo.

Li’s situation has drawn rare acknowledgment of official missteps in China, where a bureaucratic culture that prioritizes political stability over all else probably allowed the new coronavirus to spread farther and faster. Late last month, China’s highest court admonished the Wuhan police for the detentions.

“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,” the court said. “Rumors end when there is openness.”
People wearing facemasks by Henry Merino is licensed under WikiMedia Commons WikiMedia
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