With outbreaks of infectious disease emerging from animal sources, we have learnt to expect the unexpected. We were, and are, expecting a new influenza A pandemic, but no one predicted the emergence of an unknown coronavirus (CoV) as a deadly human pathogen. Thanks to the preparedness of the international network of influenza researchers and laboratories, the cause of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was rapidly identified, but there is no complacency over the global or local management of the epidemic in terms of public health logistics. The human population was lucky that only a small proportion of infected persons proved to be highly infectious to others, and that they did not become so before they felt ill. These were the features that helped to make the outbreak containable. The next outbreak of another kind of transmissible disease may well be quite different.