WUHAN, China — A doctor in central China who was among the first to warn about the coronavirus outbreak, only to be silenced by the authorities, died early Friday after himself becoming infected with the virus, the hospital treating him reported.
The Wuhan City Central Hospital said the doctor, Li Wenliang, 34, had died at 2:58 a.m.
Dr. Li “had the misfortune to be infected during the fight against the novel coronavirus pneumonia epidemic, and all-out efforts to save him failed,” the hospital said on its official account on Weibo, a Chinese social media service. “We express our deep regret and condolences.”
Just hours earlier, the hospital had said it was still fighting to save Dr. Li.
Dr. Li’s death came after a night of speculation about his fate, including an outpouring of online grief in China prompted by premature reports that he had died.
The confirmation of his death unleashed an even greater upsurge of emotion. Many comments under the hospital’s announcement accused the authorities of having sought to prolong Dr. Li’s life until deep in the night.
“We will not forgot the doctor who spoke up about an illness that was called rumor,” said one commenter. “What else can we do? The only thing is not to forget.”
Dr. Li had been a relatively obscure ophthalmologist in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province where the coronavirus epidemic took hold. But in recent weeks, he became a powerful icon for Chinese people angry that a viral outbreak had swelled unchecked into a full-blown crisis, and that the doctor who had tried to ring the alarm was initially punished.
His death poses a singularly delicate issue for the Chinese government. Even as officials have battled the epidemic, they have also tried to stifle widespread criticism that they mismanaged their response to the initial outbreak in Wuhan, a city of 11 million.
In recent days, China has stepped up censorship after a rush of online criticism and investigative reports by emboldened Chinese journalists who have exposed missteps by officials who underestimated and underplayed the threat of the coronavirus.
Soon after Dr. Li’s death was announced, the Hubei Province Health Commission issued a brief message offering condolences, and so did the health authorities of the city of Wuhan. Global Times, a reliably pro-government tabloid, also mourned the death, while also urging readers to stay united with the government’s fight against the epidemic.
“That Li Wenliang could not escape having his life snatched away shows that this is an arduous and complex battle,” an online article in the Global Times said. “At this critical juncture, all of us must be united.”
The New York Times wrote about Dr. Li on Feb. 1, documenting his efforts to alert colleagues about an alarming cluster of illnesses that resembled Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, an earlier coronavirus that ravaged China nearly two decades ago.
The article also reported Dr. Li’s middle-of-the-night summons by unhappy health officials.
“If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier,” Dr. Li told The Times. “I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”
Early reports of Dr. Li’s death, before the hospital said he was still alive, set off an outpouring of messages on the Chinese internet. The messages lionized him as a hero who stood up to officials trying to play down a medical threat that came to engulf Wuhan, spill across China and ignite an international health crisis.
After the hospital said doctors were still trying to save Dr. Li, people began posting comments of support. The doctor has one child, and he and his wife are expecting a second in the summer.
“Not sleeping!!! Waiting online for a miracle,” said one commenter under the hospital’s statement on Weibo. “We don’t need to sleep tonight, but Li Wenliang must rise.”
Dr. Li’s death appeared unlikely to inspire protests in Wuhan, which has been under lockdown for just over two weeks in an unprecedented effort to extinguish the epidemic. In Wuhan and other heavily restricted areas of Hubei, residents mostly stay inside their and avoid socializing for fear of catching the virus.
Much of the rest of China is also under tight restrictions that make mass displays of mourning unlikely.
In early January, Dr. Li was questioned by hospital officials and the police after he warned a circle of medical school classmates about a viral outbreak that he said appeared similar to SARS. The police forced him to sign a statement denouncing his warning as an unfounded and illegal rumor.
Dr. Li was soon vindicated as more and more Wuhan residents fell ill with fever and pneumonia symptoms. They eventually grew to over 10,000 — and Dr. Li joined their number after contracting the virus from a patient he was treating for glaucoma. He had not been wearing special protective gear.
“I think a healthy society should not have just one voice,” he recently told Caixin, a Chinese magazine that has reported aggressively on the epidemic.
In recent interviews, Dr. Li had sounded hopeful about overcoming the illness and going back to work.
“After I recover, I still want to return to the front line,” he told The Southern Metropolis Daily, a Chinese newspaper. “The epidemic is still spreading, and I don’t want to be a deserter.”
Additional reporting by Vivian Wang in New York. Elsie Chen contributed research from Wuhan. Li Yuan and Cao Li contributed reporting from Hong Kong. Claire Fu, Wang Yiwei and Amber Wang contributed research from Beijing.