Chicago doctor who treated COVID at Wuhan, China epicenter reflects on 1st year of pandemic

CHICAGO (WLS) -- For most in the medical field, the past year has been an ordeal like no other, and for one Chicago doctor it began with a journey to Wuhan, China in 2020.

Dr. Shu-Yuan Xiao is a pathologist at the University of Chicago, whose work routinely involves travel to China. On that trip, however, he found himself at the epicenter of an outbreak. In January 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was just blossoming.

Like everyone else, he was warned to get out but he decided not to flee. Instead, he chose to stay and help as local hospitals and clinics were flooded with desperate patients.

RELATED: Chicago doctor stayed in Wuhan at start of coronavirus outbreak to help fellow doctors, clinics

What began as an academic assignment for him became a public health crisis for all, which continues to this day.

The I-Team revisited Xiao outside his lab at the University of Chicago Medicine to speak with him about his own medical and personal journey.

"We will never forget about the damage, the catastrophic damage, this pandemic has done to the world and all of the tens of thousands of lives lost during this pandemic," Xiao said. "There were a lot. We didn't know, both in the sense of regarding this particular virus, and for epidemiology in general. This has changed our knowledge and our perception about outbreaks. About respiratory viruses, simply."

Xiao arrived back in Chicago from his most recent trip to Wuhan in late 2020, and is planning to go back again in May.

As World Health Organization analysts close in on COVID's exact point of origin in Wuhan, Xiao said wherever the pinpoint, it shouldn't end up as a blame game.

RELATED: Chicago doctor who treated coronavirus in Wuhan says lessons learned offer hope for Illinois

"I don't think there's any, like, villains. I think it's mainly because of lack of knowledge, that we simply didn't know a lot. That said, we still don't know about this, about the virus, about the future," he said.

As a man who has devoted his life to studying how diseases occur, that may be the most unsettling revelation.

Xiao admits that a year ago, he and other experts were doing the best they could with what they had to make projections. COVID-19 is a complex disease, and the complexities of its pathology continue to be realized in the United States.

"At least in the U.S., we know exactly the case fatality rate is about 1.6%," Xiao said. "That means for 100, of 100 people who are infected, about one or two people die of the disease."

Dr. Xiao said the U.S. has learned much in the past year about how to deal with a pandemic, and is perhaps better situated to deal with the next one.

"I think, in general, our society has developed to the point of data when we can deal with the things better and better," he said.

A year into this pandemic, Xiao said it's important to remember it's not the first pandemic. There was the Spanish Flu pandemic 100 years ago, but he also pointed to serious virus outbreaks in 1993, 1999, 2002 and 2012 that many people don't even remember, but that scientists used to better respond to this one.

His final message: We shouldn't lose hope.
Copyright © 2021 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.