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How To Fight COVID-19 By Turning On Your Computer

A team of Best Buy employees is helping in the fight against COVID-19 simply by turning on their computers.

They’re among more than 700,000 people worldwide who have downloaded Folding@Home, a software that crowdsources users’ computing power to help crunch COVID-19 data. The program simply runs in the background of a PC or Mac when it’s turned on but not in use.

It might sound too good to be true, but it’s an example of how people are using science and tech to come together for the greater good.

“It seemed like a natural fit with Best Buy’s purpose,” said Andrew Johnson, who organized the Best Buy team after searching for a way to do something about the pandemic.

Based at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, Folding@Home is a consortium of 11 research labs that is attempting to understand how diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer and COVID-19 work so they can find a way to treat them.

Viruses like COVID-19 use proteins to suppress the immune system and reproduce themselves. These proteins are made of a chain of amino acids that often “fold” into compact structures. 

Researchers need to look at these structures in 3D, using simulations that require lot of computing power — the kind of computing power that PC gamers have at their fingertips.

The power of our people

While following coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak in mid-March, Andrew — who works in Best Buy’s Transformation Office — was struck by how easy it is to feel isolated and powerless during a situation like this.

He saw a lot of people looking for ways to contribute, whether by donating supplies or sewing cloth masks for healthcare workers.

Working for a company that aims to enrich people’s lives through technology and contribute to the common good, Andrew saw an opportunity for Best Buy to get involved in Folding@Home’s efforts.

He rallied a team of more than 20 Best Buy employees from across the company, including the technology team and Geek Squad, to join the ranks of those donating computing power to fight COVID-19. So far, the Best Buy team has folded more than 2,800 Work Units (WUs) — using personal, not work-issued, computers. The team ranks in the top 1% on the leaderboard.

Anyone can download the Folding@Home app on PC or MAC for free and set it to run when they’re not using their computer. It’s ideal for gamers whose machines have high-end graphics cards that can handle the complex workloads.

As of April 1, the Folding@Home project was harnessing power from 1 million devices, surpassing the 1 exaflop milestone. That’s a quintillion — or one billion squared — calculations per second, essentially forming the largest supercomputer on earth.

A ‘lottery ticket’ with potential for big payouts

For Andrew, who usually volunteers his time in more hands-on ways like packing meals for malnourished children, it’s a change to volunteer with something so intangible.

“With this you can quantify your contribution, but it’s all exploratory so you might not see results,” he said.

And, in fact, Folding@Home’s researchers acknowledge there’s no guarantee they will be able to develop a treatment for COVID-19 through these simulations, but say it’s still meaningful work.

“I find this work a great source of hope,” said Folding@Home director Greg Bowman, Ph.D.

The program’s website likens it to buying a lottery ticket. The more tickets people buy, the better the chances of hitting the jackpot.

That’s enough to make it worthwhile for Andrew.

And he was excited — but not surprised — to see how many people at Best Buy were willing to try it.

“Given Best Buy’s purpose, this opportunity represents a way for people to address the key human need of caring for others,” he said.

Interested in joining the cause? Click here to learn more about Folding@Home or to download the software to your personal computer.

Photo from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.