How many times have you seen the image? It looms behind newscasters during evening updates, gets handed out on printed fliers and scrolls by in tweet after tweet. It might even show up in your dreams.

But for Alissa Eckert — a medical illustrator at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who helped to create what has become the iconic representation of the novel coronavirus — it started out as just another assignment.

On Jan. 21, the day after the C.D.C. activated its emergency operations center for the new coronavirus, Ms. Eckert and her colleague Dan Higgins were asked to create “an identity” for the virus. “Something to grab the public’s attention,” she said. Ms. Eckert expected that whatever they came up with might appear on a few cable news programs, as their creations had in the past.

Instead, as the pandemic spread and intensified, their rendering’s reach did, too. “It started popping up around the world,” she said.

Ms. Eckert uses art to make difficult medical concepts more approachable. For instance the dozens of illustrations of birth defects she’s done over the years can be “a little bit easier for people to look at and understand” than photographs, she said.

Often this means bringing the unseeable into view. One of her favorite recent illustrations, of a cluster of Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, was used in a 2019 report on antibiotic resistance. In her portrayal, the bacteria float like jellyfish, their tentacle-like pili intertwined. The aim was to “make them look like they’re really alive,” she said, “so you know to be aware of them.”

The image took about a week to make — a fast turnaround, Ms. Eckert said. She expects its success will set a standard, she said: Next time a novel virus needs to be illustrated, it too will likely get a beauty shot.

And it has certainly spread far and wide. She has seen her illustration turned into cookies and knitting projects. Someone recently told Ms. Eckert that her image haunts them on their occasional trips to the grocery store. If they reach out to touch something, they’ll picture that spiky gray blob and pause.

She was glad to hear it, she said. “It’s out there doing its job.”



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