Folding@Home: the virtual fight against a global pandemic

Jędrzej Burkat explains how we can all help in the resistance to Covid-19, using only the power of our laptops.

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As we all isolate at home in the middle of this outbreak, it is difficult not to feel powerless. We are not medical professionals, epidemiologists or researchers – the best one can do to help is stay home with clean hands and follow Boris’ instructions. Yet it still feels wrong to just sit around playing video games and watching Netflix. The hundreds of thousands of recently signed-up NHS volunteers would no doubt agree. Is there anything else we can do? If you own a computer or laptop, it turns out that there is!

Two weeks’ confinement in my home had driven me to the brink of despair. Iit was through the boredom-induced scrolling through Twitter threads that I found an idea which could unite people through small, yet meaningful contributions. Folding@Home seemed like the logical approach to research in the age of the sharing economy.

So what is it, exactly? Folding@Home is a collaborative project created by the Stanford School of Medicine, running on a simple principle: by distributing small amounts of workload across the computers of thousands of volunteers, one can create what is effectively a powerful supercomputer. Anyone can participate by downloading the software, which uses your processor’s computational abilities whenever it isn’t performing any demanding tasks (like streaming video or working on your thesis). Users effectively ‘donate’ the computational cycles of their PCs. 

All this power is needed for a seemingly simple task: simulating molecules. More specifically, simulating the movement of proteins at an atomic level (called ‘protein folding’) and understanding how drugs target them. In many cases, this cannot be done experimentally so a simulation is needed. Running these simulations, however, requires an unprecedented amount of calculation. An average computer would take decades to centuries to complete just one. Through Folding@Home, scientists can run them quickly and at effectively no cost. In the 20 years of the programme’s existence, it has been used for work on cancer, Alzheimer’s research, malaria, Ebola, and now the SARS-CoV-2 Virus.

The goal is drug development. Simulating protein folding gives bio-engineers an insight into drug-binding sites, which is a starting point for developing a medication to halt or hinder the spread of coronavirus. 

Will it be successful? It does seem likely. Folding@Home has so far directly led to 223 scientific publications and amassed a total computing power greater than the world’s seven most powerful supercomputers – combined! The project has recently identified a potential exploitable weakness in the Ebola virus, and in the past led to positive outcomes in identifying cancer-promoting mutations inaccessible through physical experiment. It is currently running over 20 Covid-related simulations.

More so than ever, every contribution can help. With a recent surge in sign-ups (one so high that it led to a temporary crash of its servers), scientists are optimistic. And though it isn’t much, every simulation is like a lottery ticket which could lead to a development of a life-saving drug. Who knows, maybe it could be your laptop that stops the pandemic.

Folding@Home is available for most platforms (including Android!), and can be downloaded from https://foldingathome.org/. Users can also join teams, which are awarded points reflecting collective contribution by the client as it runs in the background. The ‘University of Oxford Students’ team (number 255937) aims to measure the overall help from Oxford students, and you are encouraged to join.