Your computer could help in the search for a solution to COVID-19 – even when you're not using it.


Researchers at Stanford University have created a distributed computing project called Folding@home (FAH). It works by connecting the unused processing power of laptops, desktop computers and gaming consoles all over the world. Once connected to each other, they create a virtual supercomputer.


The project focuses on what’s called the spike protein, which enables the virus to latch on to cells in the human body, triggering the COVID-19 infection. This spike constantly changes shape as the proteins within it fold and unfold, and analyzing it means studying all the potential shapes it could take through this process.


Predicting and modelling the vast number of possible permutations calls for a lot of computer power.


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Molecular structure of the COVID-19 spike protein.
Image: Jason McLellan/The University of Texas at Austin


“This is where you come in,” say the FAH researchers. “With many computers working towards the same goal, we aim to help develop a therapeutic remedy as quickly as possible.”


An army of volunteers


Distributed computing projects have been a feature of many research operations for the past 20 years. The first was SETI@Home, part of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, which scanned the skies for signals that might indicate the existence of alien lifeforms. In 1999, SETI@Home invited members of the public to donate their spare computer power to help crunch through their data.


The SETI@Home team had a goal of finding 1,000 volunteers. Instead, 1 million people signed up when it went live. At the time it was estimated that in just 24 hours those volunteers, and their computers, had churned through an amount of data that would have taken 1,000 years on a single PC.


It is hoped a similar joint effort will help arrest the spread of COVID-19, which was declared a global pandemic on 11 March as the number of confirmed cases continued to grow.

Coronavirus worldwide cases John Hopkins

The number of COVID-19 cases across the world continue to rise.
Image: John Hopkins University


The spike protein is too small to be studied and analyzed through a microscope. According to computational biophysicist Gregory Bowman, in a video on the FAH website, mathematical models and computer simulations are far more effective.


The scientists hope the research into the spike protein could reveal an effective way to tackle the virus. An individual virus can’t invade a host cell until it has adhered to it using the spike protein, and preventing that initial binding process can deny the virus the opportunity to enter, and infect, a healthy cell.


Understanding the structure and behaviour of the spike protein could be an important step toward developing a COVID-19 vaccine.


Sean FlemingSenior Writer, Formative Content