Four months ago, a mucus sample arrived in Dr. Ali Mohamed Zaki’s laboratory in Saudi Arabia.
The mucus had been coughed up by a 60-year-old Saudi Arabian man with a strange case of pneumonia. He had been admitted to the Dr. Soliman Fakeeh hospital in Jeddah on June 13; soon after, his kidneys began to fail. Eleven days after being hospitalized, the man was dead.
When the patient was admitted, Zaki was working in the hospital’s virology lab, which he helped establish in 1994. He was sent samples of the patient’s sputum — mucus coughed up from his lungs.
Eventually, this spot of sputum would lead Zaki to the discovery of a virus never before seen in humans: a novel coronavirus, the same type of virus behind the SARS outbreak in 2003 that swept across 30 countries and killed approximately 800 people, including 44 Torontonians.