Modern Australian

Scary red or icky green? We can't say what colour coronavirus is and dressing it up might feed fears

  • Written by Simon Weaving, Senior Lecturer, School of Creative Industries, University of Newcastle

Images of the latest coronavirus have become instantly recognisable, often vibrantly coloured and floating in an opaque background. In most representations, the shape of the virus is the same – a spherical particle with spikes, resembling an alien invader.

But there’s little consensus about the colour: images of the virus come in red, orange, blue, yellow, steely or soft green, white with red spikes, red with blue spikes and many colours in between.

In their depictions of the virus, designers, illustrators and communicators are making some highly creative and evocative decisions.

Colour, light and fear

For some, the lack of consensus about the appearance of viruses confirms fears and increases anxiety. On March 8 2020, the director-general of the World Health Organisation warned of the “infodemic” of misinformation about the coronavirus, urging communicators to use “facts not fear” to battle the flood of rumours and myths.

The confusion about the colour of coronavirus starts with the failure to understand the nature of colour in the sub-microscopic world.

Our perception of colour is dependent on the presence of light. White light from the sun is a combination of all the wavelengths of visible light – from violet at one end of the spectrum to red at the other.

When white light hits an object, we see its colour thanks to the light that is reflected by that object towards our eyes. Raspberries and rubies appear red because they absorb most light but reflect the red wavelength.

Scary red or icky green? We can't say what colour coronavirus is and dressing it up might feed fears An artist’s impression of the pandemic virus. Fusion Medical Animation/Unsplash, CC BY

But as objects become smaller, light is no longer an effective tool for seeing. Viruses are so small that, until the 1930s, one of their scientifically recognised properties was their invisibility. Looking for them with a microscope using light is like trying to find an ant in a football stadium at night using a large searchlight: the scale difference between object and tool is too great.

It wasn’t until the development of the electron microscope in the 1930s that researchers could “see” a virus. By using electrons, which are vastly smaller than light particles, it became possible to identify the shapes, structures and textures of viruses. But as no light is involved in this form of seeing, there is no colour. Images of viruses reveal a monochrome world of grey. Like electrons, atoms and quarks, viruses exist in a realm where colour has no meaning.

Scary red or icky green? We can't say what colour coronavirus is and dressing it up might feed fears A colorised scanning electron micrograph image of a VERO E6 cell (blue) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (orange), isolated from a patient sample. NIAID/Flickr, CC BY

Vivid imagery

Grey images of unfamiliar blobs don’t make for persuasive or emotive media content.

Research into the representation of the Ebola virus outbreak in 1995 revealed the image of choice was not the worm-like virus but teams of Western medical experts working in African villages in hermetically sealed suits. The early visual representation of the AIDS virus focused on the emaciated bodies of those with the resulting disease, often younger men.

With symptoms similar to the common cold and initial death rates highest amongst the elderly, the coronavirus pandemic provides no such dramatic visual material. To fill this void, the vivid range of colourful images of the coronavirus have strong appeal.

Many images come from stock photo suppliers, typically photorealistic artists’ impressions rather than images from electron microscopes.

The Public Health Library of the US government’s Centre for Disease Control (CDC) provides one such illustration, created to reveal the morphology of the coronavirus. It’s an off-white sphere with yellow protein particles attached and red spikes emerging from the surface, creating the distinctive “corona” or crown. All of these colour choices are creative decisions.

Scary red or icky green? We can't say what colour coronavirus is and dressing it up might feed fears The CDC illustration reveals ‘ultrastructural morphology’ exhibited by coronaviruses. CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins/MAMS

Biologist David Goodsell takes artistic interpretation a step further, using watercolour painting to depict viruses at the cellular level.

One of the complicating challenges for virus visualisation is the emergence of so-called “colour” images from electron microscopes. Using a methodology that was originally described as “painting,” scientists are able to add colour to structures in the grey-scale world of imaging to help distinguish the details of cellular micro-architecture. Yet even here, the choice of colour is arbitrary, as shown in a number of coloured images of the coronavirus made available on Flickr by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). In these, the virus has been variously coloured yellow, orange, magenta and blue.

Scary red or icky green? We can't say what colour coronavirus is and dressing it up might feed fears A composite of images created by NIAID. Colours have been attributed by scientists but these are arbitrary. NIAID/Flickr, CC BY

Embracing grey

Whilst these images look aesthetically striking, the arbitrary nature of their colouring does little to solve WHO’s concerns about the insecurity that comes with unclear facts about viruses and disease.

One solution would be to embrace the colourless sub-microscopic world that viruses inhabit and accept their greyness.

Scary red or icky green? We can't say what colour coronavirus is and dressing it up might feed fears Some artists’ impressions include blood platelet images. Shutterstock

This has some distinct advantages: firstly, it fits the science that colour can’t be attributed where light doesn’t reach. Secondly, it renders images of the virus less threatening: without their red spikes or green bodies they seem less like hostile invaders from a science fiction fantasy. And the idea of greyness also fits the scientific notion that viruses are suspended somewhere between the dead and the living.

Stripping the coronavirus of the distracting vibrancy of vivid colour – and seeing it consistently as an inert grey particle – could help reduce community fear and better allow us to continue the enormous collective task of managing its biological and social impact.

Authors: Simon Weaving, Senior Lecturer, School of Creative Industries, University of Newcastle

Read more


Morrison's industrial relations peace gambit is worth a shot. Even if it fails, it's shrewd politics

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week announced plans for a potential “grand bargain” on industrial relations.Speaking at the National Press Club, he framed the issue as one of boosting...

a time to reflect on strong Indigenous leadership and resiliency in the face of a pandemic

MORGAN SETTE/AAPNational Reconciliation Week is a time of reflection, talking and sharing of histories, cultures and achievements. It is a time to think about our relationships as Indigenous and non-Indigenous...

4 ways our streets can rescue restaurants, bars and cafes after coronavirus

Nils Versemann/ShutterstockAs Australia re-opens, the bars, cafes and restaurants that give life to our streets face a tough ask: stay open and stay afloat with just a fraction of the...

missing the commute, the spaces between places and the podcast stories in our pockets

Corey Agopian/Unsplash, CC BYIn the not-so-distant past I commuted fairly hefty distances in a fairly garbage car. But you didn’t hear me complaining – I had an extensive library of...

The coronavirus has thrust human limitations into the spotlight. Will it mark the rise of automation?

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a massive surge in global unemployment. It has also highlighted the increasingly valuable role of automation in today’s world. Although there are some jobs machines...

after a storm, microplastic pollution surged in the Cooks River

A litter trap in Cook's River.James HItchcock, Author providedEach year the ocean is inundated with 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic washed in from land. A big proportion of...

what pregnant women need to know

ShutterstockGroup B streptococcal (GBS) is a common bacteria that likes to live in the human gut and migrate down the rectum, vagina and sometimes to the urinary tract. Not everyone...

When Christian met Sally – the match made by a pandemic

It was Greg Combet, one-time ACTU secretary and former Labor minister, who got Christian Porter and Sally McManus together in the early days of the pandemic.Recalling what happened, Porter told...

Another savage blow to regional media spells disaster for the communities they serve

David Mariuz/AAPWith swift and savage force, the COVID-19 pandemic has inadvertently attacked Australia’s local news media ecology, which was already battling a weakened immune system.As a researcher working on Australia’s...

New Zealand government ignores expert advice in its plan to improve water quality in rivers and lakes

Tracey McNamara/ShutterstockNew Zealand’s government has been praised for listening to health experts in its pandemic response, but when it comes to dealing with pollution of the country’s waterways, scientific advice...

Has Australia really avoided 14,000 coronavirus deaths?

ShutterstockAustralia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy told a senate inquiry earlier this week our COVID-19 public health response had avoided about 14,000 deaths.This is in contrast to his deputy Paul...

Don't be phish food! Tips to avoid sharing your personal information online

ShutterstockData is the new oil, and online platforms will siphon it off at any opportunity. Platforms increasingly demand our personal information in exchange for a service. Avoiding online services...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

Top benefits of buying a house and land packageWhat is the role of a Weighted Blanket? How Can You Become a LifesaverWhat You Should Know About Front End Smash RepairsAdvantages of Living in a Retirement VillageIf you buy virtual currency, use a safe and secure exchangeUrban Development: Trends Shaping The Future of CitiesThree cities worth visiting in PolandUpgrade your career in beauty therapy with these short beauty courses6 Ways To Treat Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)Top Tips for the Best Camping TripHealthy Cooking at Home - Tips & TricksMental Health and Covid-19: How Effective are Health- Supplements?Know the Best Times to Eat Protein BarsEnhancing Self Sense of Humor