Background SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV) is the etiologic agent of the severe acute respiratory syndrome. SARS-CoV mainly infects tissues of non-lymphatic origin, and the cytokine profile of those cells can determine the course of disease. Here, we investigated the cytokine response of two human non-lymphatic cell lines, Caco-2 and HEK 293, which are fully permissive for SARS-CoV. Results A comparison with established cytokine-inducing viruses revealed that SARS-CoV only weakly triggered a cytokine response. In particular, SARS-CoV did not activate significant transcription of the interferons IFN-α, IFN-β, IFN-λ1, IFN-λ2/3, as well as of the interferon-induced antiviral genes ISG56 and MxA, the chemokine RANTES and the interleukine IL-6. Interestingly, however, SARS-CoV strongly induced the chemokines IP-10 and IL-8 in the colon carcinoma cell line Caco-2, but not in the embryonic kidney cell line 293. Conclusion Our data indicate that SARS-CoV suppresses the antiviral cytokine system of non-immune cells to a large extent, thus buying time for dissemination in the host. However, synthesis of IP-10 and IL-8, which are established markers for acute-stage SARS, escapes the virus-induced silencing at least in some cell types. Therefore, the progressive infiltration of immune cells into the infected lungs observed in SARS patients could be due to the production of these chemokines by the infected tissue cells.