At the end of 2002, the first cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) were reported, and in the following year, SARS resulted in considerable mortality and morbidity worldwide. SARS is caused by a novel species of coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and is the most severe coronavirus-mediated human disease that has been described so far. On the basis of similarities with other coronavirus infections, SARS might, in part, be immune mediated. As discussed in this Review, studies of animals that are infected with other coronaviruses indicate that excessive and sometimes dysregulated responses by macrophages and other pro-inflammatory cells might be particularly important in the pathogenesis of disease that is caused by infection with these viruses. It is hoped that lessons from such studies will help us to understand more about the pathogenesis of SARS in humans and to prevent or control outbreaks of SARS in the future.