China has admitted that attempts to silence doctor and novel coronavirus whistleblower Li Wenliang were "improper," Chinese state media reported Thursday.
Wrapping up an investigation into the young ophthalmologist's death, the National Supervisory Commission said investigators concluded that local authorities in Wuhan mishandled the situation and followed "irregular" and "improper" law enforcement procedures.
Li sent a message to his former classmates from medical school on December 30, warning that a handful of patients in Wuhan had symptoms similar to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus and urging them to be cautious.
Screenshots of Li's message went viral online. "I only wanted to remind my university classmates to be careful," he later told CNN. "When I saw them circulating online, I realized that it was out of my control and I would probably be punished."
Li, one of eight doctors who police reprimanded, was forced to sign a letter acknowledging that he was "making false comments."
The doctor checked into Wuhan Central Hospital on January 12 after revealing on Weibo that he had been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. He died on February 7.
"During the fight against the novel coronavirus outbreak, Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at our hospital, was infected. Efforts to save him were ineffective. He died at 2:58 a.m. on Feb. 7. We deeply regret and mourn his death," Wuhan Central Hospital stated shortly after his death.
As Li's passing sparked public outrage, China's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said it would send investigators to look into "issues raised by the people in connection with Dr. Li," Reuters reported.
Putting the blame on local law enforcement, investigators advised that the police officers involved in reprimanding Li be punished and that the letter of admonition be withdrawn.
The US and China have sparred over who is to blame for the virus
China has faced criticism, especially from the US, for its handling of the coronavirus, which has spread to over 200,000 people worldwide after first appearing in Wuhan.
"Rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up," White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien said last week, adding, "It probably cost the world community two months to respond."
China has been working hard to reshape the narrative on the coronavirus, with some officials arguing that the virus may not have originated in China and fueling unfounded speculation that it may have originated in the US.
Last week, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman drew the ire of the US State Department and the Department of Defense when he wrote on Twitter that "it might be US Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan."
In response, President Donald Trump has started calling the coronavirus the "Chinese virus." "China was putting out information, which was false, that our military gave this to them," he said at a recent press briefing. "Rather than have an argument, I said I have to call it where it came from, and it did come from China."
China has expressed strong opposition to such comments. "Recent comments by US officials have smeared China," a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Thursday, adding, "The world should cooperate instead of insulting others and passing on responsibility."
The US offered up a similar suggestion to China in response to suggestions that the US military might be responsible.
The US is currently working to contain the virus, which has infected more than 9,400 people and resulted in at least 152 deaths domestically.