If you're feeling helpless in the face of the spread of the new coronavirus around the world, here's a positive action you can take: get scientists closer to a cure in a shorter space of time by donating the time that your computer is sitting idle.

By installing a small program on your laptop or desktop at home, which runs in the background when you're not doing anything else on the computer, you can help the experts run complex calculations to learn more about the COVID-19 disease.

The app (for both Windows and macOS) is called Folding @ home and it's been developed by researchers at Stanford University – in fact this app has been helping with disease and drug research for almost 20 years now.

corona fold 2The app in action. (ScienceAlert)

The main focus of this project is protein folding - a biological process which describes how a protein arranges its shape inside a cell. Learning more about how that process happens in particular viral proteins can in turn help to develop treatments for specific diseases.

In the case of COVID-19, infection occurs in the lungs when what's known as a spike protein (the red bits in the image above) binds to a receptor called ACE2. Blocking that connection is potentially one way of stopping the disease, and computer modelling is one way of figuring out how to go about keeping the protein and receptor apart.

When it comes to viruses, it's important not just to see a snapshot of a protein's shape, but also to understand how it got that shape: that's protein folding. 

Having this knowledge is vital for the development of drugs that could be effective against the new coronavirus, and that's something we want sooner rather than later. A bit of your computer's spare time could get us closer to this goal just a little more quickly.

"The data you help us generate will be quickly and openly disseminated as part of an open science collaboration of multiple laboratories around the world, giving researchers new tools that may unlock new opportunities for developing life-saving drugs," says biochemist Greg Bowman, the director of Folding @ home.

That might sound overly complex, but don't panic – the app takes care of all the heavy lifting, and you don't have to do a thing once it's installed. If you want to help with research into the COVID-19 virus, choose "Any Disease" from the interface. You can start and stop the app whenever you like, or have it pause and resume its work automatically based on the times when your computer isn't busy.

If you find yourself despairing at the worrying headline making up the news cycle at the moment, remember there is good news even in the midst of the pandemic; and that you can help in the efforts to beat it by downloading the Folding @ home app.

"These calculations are enormous and every little bit helps," says Bowman. "Each simulation you run is like buying a lottery ticket. The more tickets we buy, the better our chances of hitting the jackpot."