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Scientists want you to solve this coronavirus puzzle
Photography Dimitri Karastelev, via Unsplash

Attention gamers! Scientists want your help in curing coronavirus

A newly-launched online video game allows players to assist researchers in finding a treatment for the virus

As coronavirus accelerates across 60 countries and six continents, with parts of the world shutting down everyday in a Twilight Zone-esque drama, many of us will be left feeling helpless in the face of global panic. So far, there have been 90,000 cases worldwide and around 3,000 deaths, while it’s estimated that up to a fifth of UK workers will be off sick at the same time. But, it turns out there is something you can do to help stop the spread of the disease, with no medical expertise required – all you need is a computer, and a knack for solving puzzles. 

Researchers have discovered the portion of coronavirus – AKA COVID-19 – that allows it to infect humans, and now scientists are asking people to help find a way to eliminate the virus, either by donating computing power, or by playing a competitive online video game.

In a game series called Foldit – created by Folding@home – players are encouraged to compete and collaborate to build proteins and amino acids. In the newly-launched coronavirus puzzle – the aim of which is to find an antibody that can fight COVID-19 – players manipulate digital simulations of molecules into oddly satisfying arrangements with the goal of saving millions of lives. No pressure, then.

“This protein, called the coronavirus spike protein, allows the coronavirus to infect human cells,” Foldit scientist Brian Koepnick said in a YouTube video about the game. “We want to give Foldit players the opportunity to design proteins that bind to this spike protein and prevent infection.”

Modelling the structure of the spike protein and identifying sites that can be targeted by an antibody will require many computers working towards the same goal. Researchers are therefore asking people to donate computer power by downloading Folding@home.

The majority of cases of coronavirus are still in China, though South Korea, Italy, and Iran have recently seen a rapid increase in the number of diagnoses. The Chinese city of Wuhan – the centre of the outbreak – has been on lockdown since January, while coronavirus-related racism has spiked in the UK.

Beyond helping to find a solution to the outbreak, playing the puzzle could offer a fun way of assuaging fears around the disease, not to mention the boredom of being quarantined. For more advice on avoiding full-blown panic, we spoke to an expert about how not to freak out about coronavirus.