CORONAVIRUS/How an online post forewarned Taiwan about COVID-19

04/17/2020 07:16 PM
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Image provided by the CECC
Image provided by the CECC

Taipei, April 17 (CNA) When a warning of a mysterious virus sent by a whistleblowing Chinese doctor began filtering out of China at the end of 2019, it marked the starting point of the public phase of the COVID-19 epidemic.

Doctors with Taiwan's Center of Diseases Control (CDC) were among those paying close attention and were convinced enough by what they saw to initiate precautions against the virus.

In the wee hours of Dec. 31, 2019, CDC deputy chief Lo Yi-chun (羅一鈞) could not sleep and was scrolling his phone when an online post shared in a CDC chat group caught his attention.

Quoting information from Chinese websites, the post that appeared on PTT, one of Taiwan's largest internet bulletin board systems (BBS), warned about the potential danger of a SARS-like disease that was spreading in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

"The post came out (on PTT) at 2 a.m., and at 3 a.m., I saw it being shared on a chat group by another sleepless CDC doctor," Lo said at a press conference Thursday.

Image provided by the CECC
Image provided by the CECC

Lo said the post immediately caught his eye because unlike other unsubstantiated online messages this one included a chest CT scan, a hospital test result and what appeared to be a screenshot of messages sent by a doctor to his colleagues, warning them of a highly contagious virus.

The doctor was later confirmed to be Li Wenliang (李文亮), a 34-year-old ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital who issued the first warning about the deadly coronavirus but was detained by police on Jan. 3 for "spreading false rumors."

Li was confirmed to be infected after treating a patient who later tested positive for the virus on Feb. 1, and Li died on Feb. 7.

In Li's screenshot messages, he warned of seven SARS-like cases spreading in Wuhan, with the origin of the infection likely being a wet market selling wild animals there.

"The messages mentioned the word 'SARS,' which was enough to grab my attention on its own," Lo explained.

After taking a look at the hospital test results, Lo said he suspected that medical people in China were trying to pass on the findings to their peers without the government's knowledge.

"At that point I was pretty sure the reports were legit," Lo said, noting that with a little digging, he was able to find more disturbing information about the matter leaked on the internet.

Image provided by the CECC
Image provided by the CECC

After reading the online post, Lo said he "couldn't go back to sleep" and quickly forwarded the information to a CDC chat group that included many health officials and experts.

Within hours, the CDC sent an email to the WHO that cited "news resources" talking about "seven atypical pneumonia cases" in Wuhan and patients being isolated for treatment and asked for more information.

Based on that and other information that surfaced on Dec. 31, Taiwanese authorities began the same day to inspect all passengers coming into the country from Wuhan to check the virus at Taiwan's borders.

The virus, which later was given the official name of COVID-19 by the World Health Organization (WHO), has since spread around the globe, infecting and killing 2.1 million people in 184 countries and regions and killing over 140,000 as of Friday.

"I would like to thank the Chinese whistleblower, Dr. Li Wenliang, and the netizen named 'nomorepipe' who posted the information (on PTT)," Lo said.

"I would like to thank them for allowing us to be able to quickly assemble the information and contain the spread of the virus."

(By Chang Ming-hsuan, Chen Wei-ting and Ko Lin)

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