What the Coronavirus Image You’ve Seen a Million Times Really Shows

The illustration visualizes how the virus infects people

A colorful 3D rendering of a spiky fuzzball has spread around the world at least as fast as the coronavirus. The image, used by news media around the world, was created by Alissa Eckert, a medical illustrator at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

It is not a photograph, but rather an illustrated visualization of the microscopic coronavirus.

“The image was originally designed with the public in mind,” Eckert tells Elemental. “However, it also serves to help researchers differentiate and visualize their information. Creating visual representations of diseases provides a way to take something complex and abstract and make it tangible through visualization.”

Viruses like SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 disease, are not technically living things, and they can’t reproduce on their own. They invade cells in the bodies of animals, including humans, and take over — making people sick. The hijacked host cells then reproduce the virus. We may feel sick for two reasons: The virus can disrupt the normal function of our cells or destroy them; and our immune system springs into action, causing symptoms such as a fever, intended to kill the virus with heat.

The 3D rendering of the novel coronavirus uses vibrant colors that are not what would appear if you could see the virus with your own eyes, but here’s what the image reveals:

Image: CDC/Alissa Eckert

The gray surface is a spherical envelope that surrounds the nucleus of the virus, containing genetic material.

Orange bits are a “membrane proteins,” or M proteins, the most abundant structural protein in the virus and one that gives it form, says Eckert. These and other proteins vary from one type of virus to another, and can be used to help understand or identify one virus from another.

Yellow bits are envelope proteins (E proteins), the smallest of the structural proteins. They “play an important role either in regulating virus replication — such as virus entry — assembly and release,” according to other research.

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