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Sherif Zaki, CDC disease detective, is dead at age 65

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now we remember a remarkable man and a remarkable scientist. Dr. Sherif Zaki died after an accidental fall at home, days before Thanksgiving. His wife Nadia and their family did not know what to do with the plans they'd made for the week.

NADIA ZAKI: It's been like we're living in a dream. This is not really happening. We're expecting that maybe he's going to give us a call now. They're waiting for his call or expect him to walk in any minute, surprise us.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Zaki was a beloved husband and father of two, and he was also a world-renowned expert on infectious diseases who first made his mark at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the early '90s.

TOM KSIAZEK: The events of the hantavirus outbreak and some of the early work put him on the map.

ZAKI: Tom Ksiazek - he worked side by side with Zaki for years at the CDC. In 1993, Zaki and his team were the first to identify a deadly hantavirus outbreak in the Navajo Nation. From then on, he became a go-to infectious disease detective, building new ways to identify pathogens.

KSIAZEK: Everywhere from Ebola to the initial SARS to new agents like Lujo and Nipah.

SHAPIRO: One of Zaki's highest-profile cases came right after 9/11.

BRAD PERKINS: There were a series of bioterrorism attacks using a bacteria called Bacillus anthracis.

SHAPIRO: Also known as anthrax - Dr. Brad Perkins worked with Zaki for two decades.

PERKINS: We had a series of attacks in various parts of the country, starting in Florida, Washington, D.C., and New York City and Connecticut.

SHAPIRO: They worked 24-hour days to confirm that those cases in different states were in fact linked.

PERKINS: And he did this same task across a whole range of new, never seen before infectious disease pathogens in a way that I just don't think anybody else in the world would have been capable of.

KELLY: Towards the end of his life, Zaki threw himself at the newest intractable infectious disease - COVID-19.

INGER DAMON: Sherif is one who is able to think about novel ways to begin to answer the unanswered questions. And I think he clearly has done that during the COVID outbreak as well.

KELLY: Dr. Inger Damon had been his supervisor at the CDC since 2014. She says his team helped build an understanding of why the coronavirus causes death and the risks it carries for pregnant patients.

SHAPIRO: But beyond Zaki's tireless work, Damon says he was also gracious and collaborative - someone who took time to teach others.

DAMON: He loved teaching. He would teach anybody, whether you were a pathologist or whether, you know, you were a student, you know, learning new techniques or whether you were a congressional staffer.

SHAPIRO: It's something his wife Nadia will remember him for, too.

ZAKI: His love for teaching people and for not keeping the science and the knowledge to himself, but actually wanting to share it and wanting to educate and make people love infectious disease pathology.

KELLY: The Zaki family is now together at their home in Atlanta. There was one aspect of his work that his wife, Nadia, could not bring herself to carry on this year.

ZAKI: We had ordered the turkey (crying) - sorry - because he always did the turkey. He loved cooking. And I just couldn't do it. I had to cancel the turkey.

KELLY: Dr. Sherif Zaki died on November 21 in Atlanta. He was 65 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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