The disease that has put the entire world on pause is easily communicable, capable of stowing silently away in certain hosts and killing others, and, to the human eye, entirely invisible. In media parlance it’s become our “invisible enemy”: a nightmarish, oneiric force that can’t be seen, heard, or touched. But with the use of modeling software, scientists and illustrators have begun to visualize coronavirus, turning it into something that can be seen, understood, and, hopefully, eventually vanquished by science. Many of us imagine the virus as a sphere radiating red spikes—but why? Certain elements of these visualizations are based on the way coronavirus appears under a microscope, and others are choices that were made, an exercise of artistic license.
On January 21, CDC illustrators Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins were asked to illustrate the novel coronavirus for use in press briefings and other media materials. Eckert came up with what she called a “beauty shot” of the virus molecule (referred to in the scientific community as a “virion”), a round globule with the crown-like array of spiked proteins that give the virus its name. Eckert and Higgins experimented with a number of color schemes until they settled on red and gray with orange and yellow accents. “It just really stood out,” Eckert told the New York Times. Since then, the illustration has saturated news outlets around the world.
“Their illustration kind of looks handsome,” said Dr. Timothy Mastro, former deputy director for science in HIV/AIDS prevention at the CDC. “It has a certain symmetry to it, an appealing design … [a virus like] Ebola’s just this twisted-up piece of spaghetti, not nearly as attractive.” Mastro recalls having seen artistic renderings of the HIV molecule on posters at the conferences he attended and on the covers of journals. The image, a sphere studded with spiked proteins, similar to the CDC rendering of coronavirus, gave a certain “character” to the disease he was researching. But in the lab, Mastro concerned himself exclusively with images of the actual virus taken by means of a process called X-ray crystallography. The process, in which the crystalline structure of the virion causes a beam of X-rays to diffract in many directions, allows researchers to construct an image of the molecule. The result is a ghostly black-and-white tracing of the invisible.