Update from Wuhan, with love: COVID-19’s path to becoming a pandemic

By Danny Brooks

NANJING, China — On December 30, 2020, 34-year-old Ophthalmologist Dr. Li Wenliang shared a chilling discovery in a WeChat group of fellow alumni from his medical school: a cluster of seven pneumonia patients associated with a live-animal market in Wuhan had been diagnosed with a SARS-like illness and quarantined in his hospital. On January 3, CNN reports authorities summoned him to a police station and accused him of rumor-mongering. They forced him to sign a document saying he would desist from speaking out about the virus.

On January 12, after a few days of fever and coughing, Dr. Li was hospitalized. He had unwittingly treated a patient infected with the virus for which he too eventually tested positive on February 1. Over the intervening days his condition deteriorated. Shortly after issuing a message saying that Dr. Li was still clinging to life, Wuhan Central Hospital announced on Weibo (a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter) that he had died  the previous Friday, adding another name to the list of over 3,000 fatalities attributed to the novel coronavirus virus that has spread quickly around the world.

The virus

The virus is a coronavirus and the disease it causes is known by its scientific designation, COVID-19 . These viruses, named the ring of protein spikes surrounding the inner genetic material, resembling a crown, are common. According to the World Health Organization, they circulate in a range of animals, and can sometimes cross from animals to humans. For example, civet cats originally transmitted SARS, a coronavirus, to humans in 2002. Usually these viruses are more or less harmless. Some cause no symptoms at all. Others, like COVID-19, can cause a range of symptoms ranging from mild to severe, including fever, cough, shortness of breath, pneumonia, kidney failure and death. So far, the mortality rate of COVID-19 is unknown, though the number of deaths has long surpassed that of the 2003 SARS epidemic. 

China’s response

As the virus has spread, many have speculated that in the initial weeks of the epidemic Chinese authorities may have delayed, downplayed and covered up information about the outbreak. Their response to Dr. Li’s revelation indicates a lack of transparency. Additionally, the government failed to announce signs of human-to-human transmission until January 18, although a report by the New England Journal of Medicine found evidence of human-to-human transmission as early as mid-December 2019. In late January, authorities in China changed course and instituted strict measures to contain the outbreak. As of February 12, millions remain under lockdown in Hubei Province, the epicenter of the outbreak. Elsewhere in China people have returned to work after the national Lunar New Year vacation that the government extended due to the crisis. 

The Economist reports that the increasing volume of cases worldwide suggests that this outbreak has become a global pandemic. In Italy, 34 people have died of the illness. Authorities there reported a 50% increase of cases between Saturday and Sunday. At 2,036, it has the most cases of any country outside of Asia. Meanwhile, two top officials in Iran have contracted the disease. One, an adviser to Iran’s Supreme leader Mohammad Mirmohammadi, died on Monday. Korea has 4,335 cases, and a handful of deaths in Washington state have officials in the U.S. concerned. How governments respond to the outbreak will be crucial in mitigating — or exacerbating — its effects.

Update: As of April 13, 1,898,017 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed worldwide.