Wu Zunyou, an epidemiologist who helped drive the country’s strict zero-COVID measures in China that suspended access to cities and confined millions to their homes, died on Friday. He was 60.
An announcement from China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention about Wu’s death gave no cause but said that “rescue measures failed.”
Wu’s health had been poor. He disappeared from the public eye for months last year while battling cancer.
Wu, who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles, had spent much of his early career working on HIV/AIDS prevention in China.
Wu was instrumental in developing China’s flagship policy in the HIV epidemic among intravenous drug users, according to his biography on the UCLA website. In recognition of this work, he was awarded the 2005 International Rolleston Award. Later, he was also awarded a UNAIDS Gold Medal in 2008 for his overall work.
Yet, as China battled the COVID-19 virus, Wu came to be criticized by some for his choice to publicly voice support for the country’s strict virus control measures even as the weaknesses of the strategy became more pronounced.
“Dynamic zero-COVID is appropriate for China’s reality and is the best choice to control our country’s current COVID situation,” he said in April 2022, during the height of Shanghai’s lockdown.
The strategy bought China time in the early days of the pandemic, but by 2022, as the virus became more and more easily spread, it showed signs of strain.
The mega city of Shanghai was unprepared for a lockdown, and its residents scrambled for groceries and basic necessities, while many also found it hard to access urgent medical services as people were barred from leaving their homes or even entering hospitals. Many were also angry about a key aspect of virus controls, which involved mass field hospitals where people who tested positive were forced to go by public health workers.
In private, Wu disagreed with the excesses of the zero-COVID strategy but felt powerless to go against it.
As zero-COVID became unsustainable in the fall of 2022, he wrote an internal report urging the government to avoid excessive measures. But in public press conferences throughout the past few years, he voiced the official line.
Wu visibly aged during the virus fight. He was pictured in 2020 with mostly black hair; by 2022, his locks had gone entirely gray.
The news of Wu’s death came just hours after the death of former Premier Li Keqiang was announced. Li was the country’s No. 2 leader during the pandemic.