Light Wave


Death of Dr. Wu Zunyou marks loss of China’s leading COVID-19 expert

By Jake Beardslee · October 27, 2023

In brief…

  • Dr. Wu Zunyou, leading promoter of China's zero-COVID policy, has died at age 60 from undisclosed causes
  • Wu publicly backed strict pandemic response like lockdowns despite privately disagreeing with harsh measures
  • Focus early in career was on HIV/AIDS prevention but rose to prominence as face of zero-COVID strategy
  • Vocally defended policy in 2022 even amid signs of failure, despite reversal of position in internal memo
China's top COVID-19 expert Dr. Wu Zunyou, the public face of the country's controversial zero-COVID measures, has died just hours after the passing of former Premier Li Keqiang was announced.  中国新闻网 / Wikimedia

Dr. Wu Zunyou, a key architect of China’s strict zero-COVID strategy, has died at the age of 60, according to an announcement from the country’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday. The cause of death was not provided.

Wu had been in poor health and disappeared from public view for months last year while battling cancer. However, he remained a prominent defender of China’s controversial pandemic response. The zero-COVID policy involved lockdowns of cities, mass quarantines, and stringent travel restrictions which bought the country time early in the pandemic but ultimately proved unsustainable as the virus became more transmissible.

Wu vocally promoted zero-COVID in government press conferences through 2022, stating in April that it was “the best choice to control our country’s current COVID situation.” But privately he disagreed with the harsh enforcement and confinement measures, believing they were excessive. According to reports, he wrote an internal memo last fall urging authorities to avoid extreme actions, but felt powerless to publicly contradict official policy.

The epidemiologist’s death comes just hours after the passing of former Premier Li Keqiang, China’s second-highest ranking leader during the pandemic, was announced.

Wu had focused on HIV/AIDS prevention and control early in his career. After earning advanced degrees at the University of California, Los Angeles, he developed successful strategies to combat intravenous drug use transmission of HIV in China. His work earned prestigious international awards in 2005 and 2008. But he became best known as the public face of China’s signature zero-COVID approach when the coronavirus emerged.

While the strict measures initially slowed the virus, prolonging lockdowns and enforcing quarantines ultimately proved damaging. As policy failures mounted in 2022, the once-black-haired Wu was shown with an entirely gray head of hair, visibly aged by the country’s ongoing virus fight. Despite reservations, he continued voicing Beijing’s party line until his death.