What’s red, orange, yellow, and grey all over? That’s right, the illustration for the novel coronavirus. It’s an image that has been used time and time again around the world as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses. Newspapers, media sources, and TV broadcasts, alike, have relied on the image to help raise awareness for the virus and it’s all thanks to Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins, two medical illustrators at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Unbeknownst to most, the image is the outcome of a collaborative process that, for the novel coronavirus, has completely shaped how we envision the virus. The process began for Eckert and Higgins like any other assignment that is passed onto them. What they didn’t know was just how widespread the image would become and how it might shape the way such viruses are handled in the future.
As medical illustrators, Eckert and Higgins take difficult medical concepts and make them more accessible through illustrations, particularly when photos would be hard to digest. On January 21st, as the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the US, the CDC had just initiated emergency operations in relation to the novel virus, the duo was tasked with creating “an identity” for it.
With the then rising concern over the virus, Eckert and Higgins wanted to create an image that would “grab the public’s attention,” said to Eckert. They opted for an illustration that zoned in on a singular coronavirus, what medical illustrators call a “beauty shot.” To do so, Eckert and Higgins worked with scientists and researched the virus to get a better understanding of it. Then, using the RCSB Protein Data Bank, which offers a collection of various protein structures, they began to compile their research in order to create a visual of the coronavirus. Next, using programmes like Autodeck 3ds Max, Eckert and Higgins worked to give the virus its iconic traits, trialing different colour schemes, textures, and lighting. That’s “where all the magic happens,” said Eckert to The New York Times, “we think of it as our photography studio.”
Ultimately, they landed on a stony texture to make the virus appear tactile and lighting to create shadows, which wouldn’t exist on a microscopic image, that specifically emphasizes the seriousness of the situation at hand. Red, orange, yellow, and grey were selected as they coordinated with materials that the CDC was developing in relation to what is now a pandemic. Yellow flecks represent the Envelope or E-Proteins, which help the virus access human cells. Although there are only a few yellow dots on the Eckert/Higgin illustration, they are thought to be largely responsible for the spread of the virus. Series of two orange dots represent the virus’ M-proteins (membrane proteins) responsible for the form of the virus and the red, protruding clusters represent the spike proteins, or S-proteins, that allow the coronavirus to attach to human cells. The S-proteins give the virus its iconic “corona” and are why it is 10 to 20 times more likely to attach to human cells than other similar viruses, making it more contagious than others of its kind. Set against a grey background, the virus’ characteristics are more recognizable; “it just really stood out,” said Eckert.
Though an actual transmission of the coronavirus would produce an image not dissimilar to other respiratory coronaviruses, the Eckert/Higgins illustration lands differently, ensuring that the brevity of the situation sticks. It’s also a view that Eckert expects will catch and be used in the future as we face other novel viruses.