Sherif Zaki (1955-2021): 'CDC's secret weapon'

Salonaz Sami, Friday 26 Nov 2021

Science mourns the death of Egyptian-American Doctor Sherif Zaki - the founder and chief of the Infectious Disease Pathology Branch in the Coordinating Centre for Infectious Diseases in Atlanta, Georgia.

Sherif Zaki

Prominent pathologist Doctor Sherif Zaki, founder and chief of the Infectious Disease Pathology Branch in the Coordinating Centre for Infectious Diseases in Atlanta, Georgia, passed away on 21 November.

Dr. Zaki was renowned for cracking medical mysteries by finding signatures of pathogens in diseased cells.

Through the application of classic and new technologies, Dr. Zaki and his team have made significant contributions to advancing the understanding of the pathogenesis and epidemiology of emerging infectious diseases.

Moreover, for his leadership, scientific contributions and commitment to Centre for Disease Control’s (CDC) public health mission, Dr. Zaki has been widely recognised and awarded, including receiving the US Health and Human Services Secretary’s Awards for Distinguished Service – the department’s highest honour – nine times.

"Dr. Zaki was critical in diagnosing unexplained illness and outbreaks that allowed CDC and public health to respond more quickly and save lives," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.

"Dr. Zaki’s legacy will live on through his extraordinary work done at CDC to protect the public’s health, " she added.

"Sherif was a warm, kind-hearted man who will be missed by all of those who knew him."

Dr. Zaki and his staff were the first to identify the Hanta virus, later called the Sin Nombre virus, that caused the deaths of several people in the Navajo nation in the Southwest in 1993.

He also helped discover the Zika virus in the brain tissue of babies stricken with the mosquito-borne virus in Brazil, proving that it could be transmitted during pregnancy.

Dr. Zaki also helped identify the mechanisms that made Ebola and SARS so contagious and lethal.

"He really was kind of the secret weapon for a lot of what was done at CDC on emerging diseases," James LeDuc, Dr. Zaki’s onetime colleague, told the Stat website.

Sherif Ramzy Zaki was born 24 November 1955, in Alexandria, Egypt.

He spent the first six years of his life in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his father was attending graduate school.

Dr. Zaki received his medical degree from Alexandria University in 1978, before earning a master’s degree at his alma mater in pathology.

He earned a doctorate in experimental pathology from Emory University in Atlanta in 1989.

"There are so many viruses and bacteria we don’t know anything about, that we don’t have tests for," Dr. Zaki told the New York Times in 2007.

"We think we know everything," he added, "but we don’t know the tip of the iceberg." Zaki himself likened his work to solving puzzles like those at the core of the mystery novels he read as a child.

"We go into the basics of how a disease happens, the mechanism. Putting pieces together. Solving puzzles. Looking at the unknown and trying to figure out what it is," he told Stat website in 2016.

Tom Ksiazek, a former CDC colleague who is now a professor of microbiology at the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Galveston National Laboratory, said Zaki created a new approach to the use of pathology at CDC, using immunohistochemistry, the search for foreign proteins in cells, to identify which disease agents were at play and what the disease process they had unleashed was doing to tissues.

The CDC often gets the most interesting cases, mysteries other laboratories can’t solve. That’s a credit to the reputation of Zaki and his team, Ksiazek said.

While he was legend in his field, in person Zaki was quiet, even reserved. He didn’t seek interviews and was inclined to talk about his team more than himself when he gave them.

Dr. Zaki's data on Scopus database showed that Zaki had published in the neighborhood of 400 scientific papers and had an advanced "H score" of 102 thus placing his impact on the field way above the 35-70 range for Noble Prize hopefuls.

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