• The San Juan Daily Star

Dr. Sherif Zaki, acclaimed disease detective, dies at 65

Dr. Sherif Zaki, a pathologist, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Sept. 25, 2006. Zaki, who helped identify Ebola, the West Nile and Zika viruses, SARS and the coronavirus, died on Nov. 21, 2021, in a hospital in Atlanta from complications of injuries sustained in a fall.

By Sam Roberts

Dr. Sherif Zaki, a pathologist who as America’s chief infectious disease detective helped identify the COVID-19, Ebola, West Nile and Zika viruses and severe acute respiratory syndrome, as well as the bioterrorism attack that spread anthrax in 2001, died Nov. 21 in Atlanta. He was 65.

His wife, Nadia Zaki, said he died in a hospital from complications of injuries sustained in a fall down a flight of stairs at his home.

Zaki joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1988 and became chief of the agency’s infectious diseases pathology branch in the early 1990s.

He and his team made strides in distinguishing rare diseases and their mutations and determining what made some of them, such as SARS and Ebola, so contagious and lethal. To do so, they applied a process called immunohistochemistry, which allows researchers to identify foreign viruses by staining cells and observing them through electron microscopes capable of magnifying bacteria and viruses 740,000 times.

“Dr. Zaki was critical in diagnosing unexplained illness and outbreaks that allowed CDC and public health to respond more quickly and save lives,” the agency’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said in a statement.

Dr. Rima Khabbaz, director of the agency’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, said in an email to the CDC staff that Zaki had widely been considered to be “among the most influential infectious disease pathologists of his generation.” He was also known as a generous mentor and colleague, and as a researcher with a phenomenal memory.

After studying the coronavirus that caused SARS, he presciently told Smithsonian magazine in 2003, “I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t come back.”

In 2001, after 9/11, Zaki determined that a number of people who had come into contact with letters containing a white powder had died from anthrax after their skin was exposed to the bacteria, or after inhaling it.

He and his team helped identify a deadly outbreak of hantavirus in the Navajo Nation in 1993 (a discovery that spurred the expansion of the infectious diseases pathology branch); a previously unidentified bacterial illness called leptospirosis in Nicaragua; and the mosquito-borne Zika virus in the brain tissue of babies in Brazil, establishing that it could be transmitted during pregnancy.

He headed the agency’s Unexplained Deaths Project, a squad of detectives of last resort responsible for delving into the causes of the 700 or so baffling fatalities from disease that occur in the United States every year.

A colleague, Dr. Christopher Paddock, recalled Zaki’s “remarkable patience, perseverance and curiosity,” as well as his “stubborn determination to find the cause of disease, whether it involved one patient or 100 patients — he simply would not give up.”

After four people who received organ transplants in Massachusetts and Rhode Island developed a viral infection and three of them died, Zaki and his colleagues pinpointed the cause as lymphocytic choriomeningitis, a rare rodent-borne virus. It turned out that the organ donor’s daughter had a pet hamster.

In 2005, a few days after complaining to his pediatrician of a fever, a headache and an itchy scalp, a 10-year-old Mississippi boy became so agitated that he bit a relative. After the boy was hospitalized, tests were inconclusive, but he died two weeks later.

About a week after that, Zaki’s team detected rabies virus in the boy’s body. They learned from follow-up interviews that dead bats had been discovered in the boy’s home, and that he had found a live bat in his bedroom.

Sherif Ramzy Zaki was born Nov. 24, 1955, in Alexandria, Egypt. He spent his first six years in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his father, Ramzy Zaki, was attending graduate school. He later lived in the Caribbean, the Middle East and Europe, where his father worked for the United Nations’ International Labor Organization. His mother, Dalal (Elba) Zaki, was a teacher.

In addition to his wife — Nadia Abougad when they married — Zaki is survived by a daughter, Yasmin; a son, Samy; and two sisters, Dorreya and Safa.

He graduated second in his class of 800 from the Alexandria Medical School in Egypt in 1978. But he was less interested in practicing medicine than in unraveling mysteries, which had been an obsession of his since he was captivated by the novels of British author Enid Blyton as a child.

That obsession was at the heart of his work at the CDC.

“We go into the basics of how a disease happens, the mechanism,” he said in an interview with Stat, a medical website, in 2016. “Putting pieces together. Solving puzzles.”

He earned a master’s in pathology from Alexandria University. But since autopsies were not permitted in Egypt for religious reasons, he did his residency in anatomic pathology at Emory University in Atlanta, where he also received a doctorate in experimental pathology.

He then went to work at the CDC and became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Described by James LeDuc, a former colleague, as “kind of the secret weapon for a lot of what was done at CDC on emerging diseases,” he was awarded the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary’s Award for Distinguished Service, the department’s highest honor, nine times.

“What distinguished him as a researcher was creativity, collaboration, solid scientific methodology and a broad knowledge base,” Dr. Inger Damon, of the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, said in an email.

Zaki had no illusions that his work would ever be finished.

“We think we know everything,” he told The New York Times in 2007, “but we don’t know the tip of the iceberg.”

“There are so many viruses and bacteria we don’t know anything about, that we don’t have tests for,” he added. “A hundred years from now, people will not believe the number of pathogens we didn’t even know existed.”

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