Sherif Zaki, a legendary disease detective at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who had a photographic memory and a knack for cracking hard cases, has died.
Name a newly emerged or vexing infectious pathogen and chances are Zaki played a role in identifying it or tying it to a mysterious outbreak that was defying investigation. He and his team pinpointed Zika virus in the brain tissues of miscarried fetuses, found the hantavirus later named Sin Nombre in the first known hantavirus outbreak in the United States, and confirmed that anthrax was responsible for early deaths in what would become a spate of attacks that petrified the country in the autumn of 2001.
The CDC announced Zaki’s death to staff on Monday. The cause of death was not provided but Inger Damon, director of the division of high-consequence pathogens and pathology and Zaki’s supervisor, told STAT it was “sudden and unexpected.”
A native of Alexandria, Egypt, Zaki would have turned 66 on Wednesday.
“During his tenure at the agency, Dr. Zaki was critical in diagnosing unexplained illness and outbreaks that allowed CDC and public health to respond more quickly and save lives,” Rochelle Walensky, the agency’s director, said in a statement. “Sherif was a warm, kind-hearted man who will be missed by all of those who knew him.”
Current and former CDC officials spoke of a man with a unique ability to solve medical mysteries by studying tissues for the signatures of the infectious agent at play. “He really was kind of the secret weapon for a lot of what was done at CDC on emerging diseases,” said James LeDuc, who recently retired as director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
LeDuc said that when Zaki was hired in 1988 there was befuddlement among some in the upper echelons of the agency about what they would do with a pathologist. But Zaki quickly became a fixture of the CDC’s outbreak investigation work.
“The point is, it didn’t matter what the pathogen was,” said LeDuc, who noted that Zaki became one of CDC’s go-to people when infectious diseases crises occurred. “He was able to use the tools and to partner with one of the experts at CDC or outside CDC and really provide critical information in a very, very timely manner. Just a real asset.”
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 basic 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 in 2016.
On Monday, Tom Ksiazek, a former CDC colleague, looked up Zaki on Scopus, an abstract and citation database, to get some academic metrics with which to describe his longtime friend. The database showed that Zaki had published in the neighborhood of 400 scientific papers and had an “h score” of 102. (H scores measure a scientist’s impact on their field.) It’s been estimated that scientists who hope to win a Nobel prize need an h score of at least 35 and preferably closer to 70.
Ksiazek, 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’d 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.
“He occupied an enviable … situation,” Ksiazek acknowledged. “And that’s not necessarily just because he was at CDC, but rather because he developed a reputation of excellence and ability to work on these things and crack ’em.”
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. Training others in the skills he’d acquired was one of his key focuses. Another CDC friend, Ebola expert Pierre Rollin, who retired in 2019, noted that in recent years Zaki traveled to train scientists in how to do infectious diseases pathology in Africa, South America, and other places where those skills are in short supply.
“His interest and his goal and his passion was the science of pathology and how it dealt with public health,” said Damon. “But I think it’s really a testament to his leadership that he has mentored and fostered the development of so many other infectious disease pathologists.”
Those scientists are Zaki’s legacy, colleagues said. But his loss leaves a gaping hole in the field. “He really was one of a kind,” Damon said.
Rollin reached for a quote ascribed to the Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ to describe the impact of Zaki’s passing. Hampâté Bâ likened the death of an old person to the razing of a library.
“He had this knowledge that will be difficult to replace,” Rollin said.
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