Feel less helpless by donating your excess computing power to coronavirus research

The devil may find work for idle hands, but idle computers can be turned to good ends.

Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM / CDC

Watching the spread of COVID-19 — commonly known as the novel coronavirus — around the world, and the fear that's spreading along with it, can make you feel helpless. But it turns out you can help from home, and all you need to do is download some simple software.

The Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center has teamed up with the Folding@home Consortium to create a simple software client that shares your computing power with a worldwide network hoping to fight the spread of COVID-19. All you have to do is hit install and allow the program to run in the background. The program will pull from your computer’s resources while it’s idle. You should probably check with your IT department if you plan on using your work computer, though.

Computing power could make or break the effort — When learning about new diseases, one of the most powerful methods we have at our disposal is computer modeling. The process by which a viral protein binds to receptors needs to be studied in great detail — and that means putting enormous amounts of computing power behind the project.

“Proteins are not stagnant — they wiggle and fold and unfold to take on numerous shapes,” Folding@home explains. “We need to study not only one shape of the viral spike protein, but all the ways the protein wiggles and folds into alternative shapes.”

We already know the basic physical aspects of COVID-19 that cause its unique infection. But much more detail is needed to build antibodies that could cure the body of the coronavirus. And that kind of precision is going to take massive amounts of computing power.

When it comes to infectious diseases, the time it takes to find a cure can be the difference between a blip on the radar and a full-blown pandemic. Luckily, it’s easy to donate computing power, even when you’re working from home or otherwise hiding from the world.