With millions of people left feeling helpless as COVID-19 sweeps across the U.S. and the rest of the planet, there is one way in which absolutely anyone can help fight the pandemic -- all you need is a computer and an Internet connection.
"The more donors that participate, the more science we're able to do."
The Folding@home project allows members of the public to contribute a portion of their computing power to a gigantic virtual network which has mushroomed over the past month to become the most powerful supercomputer on the planet.
As of April 6, more than one million people across the globe have donated some of their home computing resources to the project. Combined, this gives Folding@home processing powers that dwarf even NASA and IBM's most powerful devices. To join, all you have to do is go to this website and click 'Download Now' to load the Folding@home software on your computer. This runs in the background, and only adds your unused computing power to the project, so it will not drain resources from tasks you're trying to do.
"It's totally crazy," said Vincent Voelz, associate professor of chemistry at Temple University, Philadelphia, and one of the scientists leading the project. "A month ago, we had around 30,000 to 40,000 participants. And then last week, it rose up 400,000 and now we've hit a million. But the more donors that participate, the more science we're able to do."
Voelz and the other scientists behind Folding@home are using these vast resources to model the ever-changing shapes of the coronavirus's proteins, in the hopes of identifying vulnerabilities or 'pockets' in its structure that can be targeted with new drugs.
One of the reasons it's difficult to find treatments for viruses like COVID-19 and Ebola is because the proteins, the innate building blocks of the viral structure, have notoriously smooth surfaces, making it hard for drugs to bind to them.
But viral proteins don't stay still. They are constantly evolving and changing shape as the atoms within push and pull against each other. Having a supercomputer enables scientists to simulate all these different shapes, revealing potential weaknesses which were not immediately visible. And the more powerful the supercomputer, the faster these simulations can happen.
"Simulating these protein motions also enables us to answer basic questions such as what makes this new coronavirus strain different from previous strains," said Voelz. "Is there something about the dynamics of these proteins that makes it more virulent?"
Finding a genuinely novel drug for COVID-19 is particularly critical.
Once they have identified suitable pockets within the proteins of COVID-19, the Folding@home scientists can then take the many compounds being identified by chemists around the world as potential drugs, and try to predict which ones will stand the best chance of binding to those pockets and inhibiting the virus's ability to invade and take over human cells.
"We have so much bandwidth now with Folding@home that we really think we can make a dent with screening these, and prioritizing which compounds are then going to get experimentally tested," said Voeltz.
The team are particularly hopeful they can succeed, having already used the supercomputer to identify a new vulnerability in the Ebola virus, which could go on to yield a new treatment for the disease.
Finding a genuinely novel drug for COVID-19 is particularly critical. While researchers are also looking at repurposing existing medications, like the antimalarials Hydroxychloroquine and Chloroquine (which have just been approved by the FDA for emergency use in coronavirus patients), concerns remain about the safety of these treatments. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic recently warned that the use of these drugs could have the side effect of inducing heart problems and run the risk of sudden cardiac arrest.
But with the death toll increasing by the day, speed is of the essence. Voelz explains that the scientific community has been left playing catch-up, because a drug was never actually developed for the original SARS outbreak in the early 2000s. The enormous computational power of the Folding@home project has the potential to allow scientists to quickly answer some of the key questions needed to get a new treatment into the pipeline.
"We don't have a SARS drug for whatever reason," said Voelz. "So the missing ingredient really, is the basic science to reveal possible drug targets and then the pharma can take that information and do the engineering work and optimizing and clinically testing drugs. But we now have a lot of basic science going on in response to this pandemic."