Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) emerged as a new disease in Guangdong Province, People's Republic of China in late 2002. Within weeks it had spread to Hong Kong and thence globally to affect over 25 countries across five continents. The disease had the propensity to cause clusters of pneumonia, particularly in healthcare workers or close family contacts. A global effort coordinated by the World Health Organization successfully defined the aetiology, epidemiology and clinical characteristics of the disease, and the implementation of case identification, isolation and infection control measures led to the interruption of the global outbreak by July 2003. The pattern of disease emergence and strategies for control of SARS provides lessons for coping with future emerging infectious disease threats.