What Color is Your COVID?

Rick Lesaar
6 min readMar 27, 2023


Fact: Viruses have no color.

Common Misconception: The Coronavirus is red.

The COVID virus (SARS-CoV-2) has no color. Nor for that matter do any other viruses. Here’s why:

First, color is not an inherent quality of any object, like its mass or its shape. In other words, no object actually has color, it’s just that humans perceive color. If a human is not looking at an apple, an elephant, or a virus, it has no color. Our eyes interpret light that reflects or bounces off an object as color. One wavelength of light we see as green, another as purple, etc. But in this case, it truly is all just in our head. Our brain ‘assigns’ perceived colors to light of various wavelengths.

Second, in order to reflect light, an object has to be at least as large as the wavelength of light hitting it. If not, the wave simply passes over the object and does not reflect back, in this instance back to our eyes. The Coronavirus is somewhere between 50–140 nm in length, where an nm is a nanometer or one billionth of a meter. Visible light ranges from 380 nm (violet) to 750 nm (red). So light waves are simply too large to reflect off a virus. [ 1 ]

But if that’s the case, why do most people believe the COVID virus has color and why do most of those believe that color is red? And how are deceptive advertisers taking advantage of that?

I conducted a simple scan, not a scientific survey (methodology detailed below), that might suggest what color people in different countries believe SARS-CoV-2 to be. Here are the results:

Relative color predominance of coronavirus images in different countries.

In each of these nine countries, a Google image search of the term “coronavirus” returned a clear majority of red images. These ranged from 40% of images in the US to 26% in Japan, but in each case, red was the clear favorite. Why this is so is anybody’s guess. It could be that red is associated with menace, danger, or evil –all of which the virus certainly is– though those associations are far from universal. In Japan, for example, red is actually thought to repel evil. [ 2 ] Or maybe the graphic artists who released some of the first illustrations of the coronavirus chose to color them (possibly randomly) red. In any event, red coronavirus images clearly predominate.

Exploiting the Gap

In the U. S., the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has the responsibility to police unfair or deceptive advertising. [ 3 ] With regard to COVID, the Commission’s authority was significantly strengthened last year by the passage of the COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act of 2021. [ 4 ] Here’s just one instance where they used their enforcement powers to require an advertiser to cease and desist from deceptive practices directly related to the public’s belief that the coronavirus is red.

Among several other misleading acts, RhinoSystems, Inc., the maker of the widely-advertised Naväge nasal irrigation system, ran a commercial clearly implying that its product could remove coronavirus. I can’t show you the commercial because, at the FTC’s direction, it’s no longer being run and it’s been removed from the internet as well. But I can show you two images from that commercial [ 5 ] :

Images from Naväge commercial.

As you look at these pictures, read what the FTC said [ 6 ] (highlighting mine):

Notice that nowhere in the Naväge commercial does it mention COVID or coronavirus. In other words, the FTC took action against Naväge in part for its illustrations which implied it could “flush out” coronavirus by playing to the common misconception that the coronavirus is red. [ 7 ] [ 8 ]

The communications take-away:
For some people, perception is reality, but for some companies, leveraging that perception with an intent to deceive or defraud, is illegal.

Methodology and Results for the Pie Charts

Before describing how the charts were created, it’s important again to mention that these results are just a narrow sampling, not a rigorous survey.

To get an idea of what color is associated with the coronavirus is different countries, I used Google’s “Region Settings” and Google Translate (to find the appropriate search term.)

For example, for Japan, (1) in the lower right-hand corner of a Google search window, I selected Settings, then Search Settings, then Japan, then Save. (2) In a second Google search window, I selected Google Translate, then translated coronavirus into Japanese: コロナウイルス. (3) I entered that translated term in the first window and selected Images. (4) On the first page of results only, I counted all the depictions of a coronavirus, whether illustrations or electron micrographs, noting the color of each. (5) Some images use multiple colors for different parts of the coronavirus, so to be consistent, I recorded only the color of the inside of the bulbs of the spikes (the corona or lollypop-like structures), not the outlines of those spikes. (6) From those numbers, I calculated the percentages of each color.

For the search term, I used coronavirus for the US, which translated to the exact same term in German for Germany, Spanish for Mexico, Portuguese for Brazil, and French for France. I used Коронавирус in Russian for Russia, virusi vya Korona in Swahili for Kenya, and وس كورونا for Algerian Arabic for Algeria.

The unusually high level of gray images in Japan (18% –more than twice that of any of the other countries measured) is due to the prevelance of undoctored electron micrographs.

I was also interested in looking at the coronavirus color prevalence in China and South Korea, but both of these countries fully or substantially block Google.

Here are the data I collected:


[ 1 ]
For a fuller discussion, see Ethan Siegel’s article here:

[ 2 ]
See this fascinating chart from Information is Beautiful that shows color associations for 84 concepts across ten cultures: https://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/colours-in-cultures/

[ 3 ]
Since its creation in 1914, the FTC has had the responsibility to police unfair trade practices, but it wasn’t until 1938 and the passage of the Wheeler-Lea Act that the Commission was given explicit authority to protect consumers as well as businesses. See: https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/public_statements/683461/19620122_macintyre_fair_advertising_landmarks.pdf

[ 4 ]
“For the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency declared pursuant to section 319 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 247d), this Act makes it unlawful under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act for any person, partnership, or corporation to engage in a deceptive act or practice in or affecting commerce associated with the treatment, cure, prevention, mitigation, or diagnosis of COVID–19 or a government benefit related to COVID–19. The Act provides that such a violation shall be treated as a violation of a rule defining an unfair or deceptive act or practice prescribed under Sec. 18(a)(1)(B) of the FTC Act.”

[ 5 ]

[ 6 ]

[ 7 ]
Much like raising money from people who mistakenly believe the 2020 election was stolen.

[ 8 ]
Nor was RhinoSystems the only firm to receive FTC warning letters; as of January 19, 2022, 425 companies had been cited.



Rick Lesaar

Author of www.healthandcommunications.com on the intersection of health and communications. Get in touch at rlesaar@mac.com.