CDC loses chief infectious disease expert, Sheriff Zaki, to accident

As the New York Times reported, the head of the CDC picked up the phone to notify government and law enforcement officials, remarking that “If Zaki says it’s anthrax, then I’m calling and saying it’s anthrax.”

Zaki and his disease detectives at CDC were the go-to people for those seeking answers on emerging disease outbreaks. He was known among colleagues for broad medical knowledge, superior analytic and investigative skills and perseverance.

Longtime friend and fellow CDC infectious disease pathologist Dr. Chris Paddock substituted stubbornness for perseverance. That trait led Zaki to press on where others likely would have thrown up their hands, he said.

“I always kidded him that he would have made a great used car salesman, getting other people to do what they didn’t necessarily want to do,” Paddock said.

Dr. Sherif Zaki, 65, a world-renowned expert in infectious disease pathology, died Nov. 21 after a fall at home. A small private funeral was held, with a public memorial is being planned for a later date.

Survivors include wife Nadia, children Yasmin and Samy, two siblings and a number of nieces and nephews.

Zaki was a resident in orthopedic medicine at the University of Alexandria in Egypt when he became fascinated by pathology and switched specialties. Wrangling a scholarship from Egypt’s government, he landed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to pursue a Ph.D. There, he asked university officials if he could combine the Ph.D. program with a residency in pathology, marrying clinical duties with classroom work.

“They said, no way,” recalls Nadia Zaki.

Undaunted, he applied to do the same at Emory in Atlanta. They said yes, and the Zakis headed south.

His Emory work snagged the CDC’s attention. After passing his boards, its then-director asked him to come and build a team that would fit hand-in-glove with the agency’s mandate to battle diseases and save lives.

His team made remarkable breakthroughs, pinpointing the first Hantavirus outbreak in the U.S., finding Zika virus in the brains of Brazilian babies who died shortly after birth, and helping determine how the disease passed from mother to fetus. More recently they tackled the coronavirus outbreak, investigating breakthrough infections and tissue damage.

Zaki pioneered techniques in putting puzzle pieces together, such as using immunohistochemistry — finding proteins in the cells of tissue to pinpoint disease culprits.

Not all was front-page worthy. There were many thousands of non-high-profile cases sent by stumped coroners, hospital pathologists and state health departments seeking answers.

And there was more to Zaki’s passion than tissue samples and high-powered microscopes.

“The overarching thing was that he was someone who was interested in educating others and having them share the wonder of a discovery,” said Inger Damon, the head of the High-Consequence Pathogens and Pathology branch of the CDC.

Residents at Emory clamored to intern in his lab. Widely published and in high demand as a conference speaker, he traveled the world instructing others.

He shared that same drive with laypeople.

Tom Skinner, a friend and longtime CDC press officer, recalled Sherif excitedly calling him to his office one day to look at slides.

“It was funny,” Skinner said. “At the end of an hour… I turned to him and told him I didn’t know how he could do it because every one of those slides looked at exactly the same to me.”

“He flashed a kind smile and shook his head and laughed,” he recalled.

Paddock and others described him as a team player, averse to hogging the limelight and quick to share credit with others

“He was the kind of guy who would share his lunch with you if you forgot yours. There’s a big scientific loss but also a great emotional loss,” he said.

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