The Pandemic’s Invisible Agent

Thin as one-thousandth the width of an eyelash, the malign virus appears to us in magnified images as a round glob of genetic material surrounded by a beady shell. The so-called crowns (corona in Latin) on its surface are its means of destruction.

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a cell (blue) infected with SARS-CoV-2 (red), isolated from a patient sample. Image captured at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland (all images courtesy the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

In a small laboratory at the feet of the Rocky Mountains of Montana, a team of microbiologists for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) are working around the clock to produce microscopic images for a virus that caused a worldwide pandemic and put hundreds of millions under lockdown. The work of these scientists has gained an unprecedented foothold in popular culture and stirred our collective imagination.

Those images of floating balls of spikes that we see in media coverage of the coronavirus come from “scanning and transmission electron microscope images” released by NIAID’s Rocky Mountains Laboratories (RML).

“People have been working 14-16 hour days on their projects since mid-January,” Ken Pekoc, a spokesman for the NIAID, told Hyperallergic in an email, explaining why the microbiologists couldn’t possibly be available for interviews these days.

3D print of the coronavirus. The virus surface (blue) is covered with spike proteins (red) that enable the virus to enter and infect human cells

Credit for the first images of the virus should, however, go to investigator Emmie de Wit, who isolated the virus from patient samples, microscopist Elizabeth Fischer, who produced the images, and workers of the laboratory’s visual medical arts office, who spectacularly colored the microscope scans. Other images depicting infected cells were captured at the NIAID’s Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. All the images are available for free use on the NIAID’s Flickr page.

Scanning electron microscope image of SARS-CoV-2 (round gold objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab

Thin as one-thousandth the width of an eyelash, the malign virus appears to us in magnified images as a round glob of genetic material surrounded by a beady shell. The so-called crowns (corona in Latin) on its surface, which give the virus its name, are its agents of destruction. It is with these proteins that it enters human cells and infects them. Once inside a cell, the virus duplicates itself 10,000 times within hours. After a few days, infected patients can carry hundreds of millions of coronavirus particles in their blood. Symptoms may or may not appear.  

The latest troubling news is that we might not even be looking at a living organism. “It’s switching between alive and not alive,” Gary Whittaker, a Cornell University professor of virology, told the Washington Post. The professor described the coronavirus as being somewhere “between chemistry and biology.” And that’s precisely what makes it so hard to defeat: It moves invisibly, switching modes of being and surreptitiously infecting unsuspecting people as it goes.

Once inside a cell, the virus makes 10,000 copies of itself within hours

The deadly virus has quickly been popularized as COVID-19, a name introduced by the World Health Organization (WHO) together with the World Organization for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “We had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, and which is also pronounceable and related to the disease,” director-general of WHO’s, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, explained while christening the moniker in a press conference early in February.

COVID-19, however, is not a name for the virus itself, but for the disease it causes. The pathogen itself was originally described with the less catchy name of “2019-nCoV“. That is until the Coronavirus Study Group (CSG) of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), the body charged with classifying and naming viruses, published a preprint of a study which found that the virus is a variant of the far less lethal Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) of 2002–03 and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012 — all members of the “human coronavirus family” of viruses. Hence, the new virus was named “coronavirus 2”, or “SARS-CoV-2”, which are the terms still used by scientists.

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (greenish-brown) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (pink), isolated from a patient sample

The coronavirus’s cartoonish, spiky appearance has naturally lent itself to a flurry of internet memes and GIFs: from an art handler’s interpretation of the virus as a wooden ball dotted with cartwheels to COVID-19 nipple pasties.

Images of the virus are also being used to protest the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic. In some, the president is depicted as an incarnation of the virus. One well-crafted GIF shows Donald Trump as a raging coronavirus spluttering endless copies of itself. Another features Trump’s angry face on the virus with the caption: “MORONAVIRUS“. And a particularly funny meme links the virus to a pattern on one of Ivanka Trump’s dresses.

Perhaps we need these memes to cope with the existential dread of the pandemic. But there’s also an undeniable, visually appealing quality to NIAID’s colorful images of the coronavirus that make its deadliness easy to forget. Some even evoke telescopic images of deep space galaxies, possibly a reminder of our common origins on this planet.

On the bright side, the pandemic is bringing us together as a species, stressing the need for human solidarity in the face of an insidious, invisible enemy. That may not include the United States president, who instead of choosing between the terms COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2, prefers to xenophobically dub it the “Chinese Virus.” But as the numbers from across the globe show, this fast-moving machine of illness and death knows no national or racial boundaries.

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