A Chinese doctor who issued an early warning about the coronavirus outbreak before it was officially recognised has died of the virus, triggering a wave of public mourning and rare expressions of anger towards the government online.
Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at a hospital in Wuhan, the city at the epicentre of the outbreak, became one of the most visible figures in the crisis after he publicly revealed he was one of eight people reprimanded by Wuhan police last month for "spreading rumours" about the coronavirus.
News of Li's death became the top top-read topic on China's microblogging site Weibo overnight on Friday, with over 1.5 billion views, and was also heavily discussed in private WeChat messaging groups, where people expressed outrage and sadness.
Some Chinese media outlets described him as a "hero who was willing to speak the truth" while other commentators posted poems, photos and drawings saluting him.
The World Health Organisation said on Twitter it was "deeply saddened" by news of his death.
"Light a candle and pay tribute to the hero," one Weibo commentator said.
"You were the beam of light in the night." An image also posted on Weibo showed a message, "farewell Li Wenliang", carved into the snow on a riverbank in Beijing.
China's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, its top anti-corruption body, said on Friday it would send investigators to Wuhan to probe "issues raised by the people in connection with Dr Li Wenliang".
But there were also signs that discussions of his death were being censored.
The topics "the Wuhan government owes doctor Li Wenliang an apology" and "we want free speech" briefly trended on Weibo late on Thursday but yielded no search results on Friday.
Reports of Li's death had surfaced before midnight local time in China on state media but were deleted later.
The Wuhan hospital where Li worked said on its Weibo account that he died at 2.58am (5.58am AEDT) on Friday.
Li, 34, in December told a group of doctors on WeChat, a Chinese social media and messaging platform, that seven cases of a disease resembling severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) had been linked to a seafood market in Wuhan, believed to be the source of the virus.
He posted a picture of a test result confirming a "SARS-like" coronavirus in a patient sample, according to a screenshot of the WeChat conversations.
A letter to Li from the Wuhan police bureau on January 3 said he had "severely disrupted social order" with his WeChat messages.
He was asked to sign the letter as a promise to stop such illegal behaviour immediately or face criminal charges.
Li said on Weibo on February 1 that he had tested positive for the virus.
"We express our deep condolences and regret! We pay tribute to how he stood at the front line to fight the epidemic and offer our sincere condolences to his family!" the Wuhan government said on its website.
© RAW 2020