Beijing (AFP) – A Chinese doctor who was punished after raising the alarm about China’s new coronavirus died from the pathogen on Friday, sparking an outpouring of grief and anger over a worsening crisis that has now killed more than 630 people.
At least 31,000 people have now been infected by a virus that ophthalmologist Li Wenliang brought to light in late December before becoming its latest victim.
The virus is believed have emerged from a market selling exotic animals in Wuhan before jumping to humans and spreading across China and abroad as millions travelled for the Lunar New Year holiday.
Researchers at the South China Agricultural University have identified the endangered pangolin as a “potential intermediate host” for the disease, as the genome sequences of viruses found on the scaly mammal are 99 percent identical to those on coronavirus patients.
The virus has since spread across China, prompting the government to lock down cities of tens of millions of people, and panic has spiralled around the globe as more than 240 cases have emerged in two dozen countries.
A quarantined cruise ship in Japan now has 61 confirmed cases.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump, whose countries have tussled over trade and human rights, spoke on the phone about the health emergency.
Xi urged “the US side to respond reasonably to the novel coronavirus outbreak”, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Trump expressed his “confidence” in China’s ability to tackle the epidemic, the White House said.
Beijing has been angered by bans on arrivals from China instituted by the United States and other countries.
Li, 34, died early Friday, Wuhan Central Hospital said in a post on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform, an announcement that triggered deep sadness on social media over a doctor hailed as a hero.
“He is a hero who warned others with his life,” a fellow Wuhan doctor wrote on Weibo.
There was also a rare collective bout of anger at the authorities and bold demands, including the hashtag “we demand freedom of speech”, which was censored.