A scientific illustration depicting the SARS-CoV-2 virus structure went viral in late March 2021 because of the supposed “moist” appearance it depicted:
The graphic was shared on Facebook and Twitter by The Lancet medical journal on March 30, 2021, to announce the publication’s launch of its COVID-19 Resource Center, a collection of research, news, analysis and images related to the pandemic. However, a reverse image search of the graphic in question revealed that it made its first appearance in a Feb. 1, 2020, study published in the journal titled, “Offline: 2019-nCoV outbreak — early lessons.”
The image was created by 3D modeler and medical illustrator Maurizio De Angelis and was also used as the front cover illustration of the February 2020 issue of The Lancet.
Angelis’ depiction of the virus showed similar structures as an illustration created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2020. Both images present crown-like spikes on the outer surface of the virus that are indicative of coronaviruses and give the family of viruses its name. Spike proteins cover the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 and are used by the virus to bind to cell receptors in the host, resulting in viral infection.
According to a study published in the journal Nature, these proteins are critical to the viral life cycle, and understanding them allows scientists to better target potential drug treatments.
“Further understanding of the structure and function of SARS-CoV-2 S will allow for additional information regarding invasion and pathogenesis of the virus, which will support the discovery of antiviral therapeutics and precision vaccine design,” wrote the researchers in August 2020. Illustrating structural information also helps in evaluating mutations of the virus protein that could result in other strains.
While Angelis’ illustration may look “moist” according to some social media users, it’s important to remember that art is objective. And if the image didn’t give you goosebumps, perhaps the word “moist” did — research published in 2014 found that as many as 20% of the population “equates hearing the word ‘moist’ to the sound of fingernails scratching a chalkboard.” Interestingly enough, it’s not the sound of the word but rather its association with bodily fluids and functions that seems to perturb some people.