Covid-19 Vaccine: How Online Gamers Could Help Speed It Up

Emilee Geist

Rhiju Das is a professor of biochemistry and physics at Stanford University and the principal investigator of Eterna. Read more opinion Martin Skladany is a law professor at Pennsylvania State University and an advisor to Eterna. Read more opinion Sinovac’s potential Covid-19 vaccine.  Photographer: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images AsiaPac Photographer: Kevin Frayer/Getty […]

Sinovac’s potential Covid-19 vaccine. 

Photographer: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images AsiaPac

Quickly vaccinating billions of people around the globe against Covid-19 is going to be an endeavor like no other in human history. What could make it even more difficult is that some of the leading contenders — mRNA

 vaccines — have a very short shelf life: They have to be stored and shipped at temperatures as low as minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit).

The private sector, as well as the U.S. military, is trying to figure out how to manage that feat. But there’s another possibility — and it relies on thousands of people playing an online game.

A relatively new technology, mRNA vaccines are promising because they can be created and manufactured quickly. Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccine candidates (two of the first three to begin Phase 3 clinical trials in the U.S.) are mRNA vaccines. Once thawed, however, an mRNA vaccine has to be used immediately. Without a breakthrough, such vaccines wouldn’t be available at local pharmacies, community centers or libraries, as the flu shot is. They probably would never reach developing countries.

But it should be possible to create a longer-lasting vaccine by redesigning a bit of its genetic code that, once injected into our bodies, instructs cells to create a protein that is identical to one on the exterior of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Just like a traditional vaccine made from weakened or dead viral material, this protein teaches the immune system to recognize and destroy the virus that causes Covid-19.

Scientists can quite easily design an mRNA that codes for this protein. In fact, there is an astronomical number

 of possible mRNAs that will work. But the vast majority of those mRNA molecules are floppy — and bits of a floppy mRNA molecule occasionally contort into folds that cause it to lose potency. The trick is finding an mRNA that still codes for the right protein but folds up into some stable three-dimensional structure that can’t undergo such contortions. In other words, an mRNA built to stay effective for a long time in a regular refrigerator.

This biochemical problem is currently being worked on by thousands of people around the world — by playing a game called Eterna. Solving puzzles requires folding an RNA molecule into a particular shape by bonding base pairs of nucleotides. (RNA is made of four kinds of nucleotides.) It’s a simple point-and-click interface backed by state-of-the-art folding simulations. In recent years, the citizen science of Eterna has uncovered RNA design rules that can be used in emerging methods of disease detection and gene therapy.

Most relevant for stabilizing current vaccines, Eterna has revealed rules for designing RNA molecules into unusually stable structures.

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