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You Can Help Researchers Look for COVID-19 Treatments With Your Smartphone

In focus photo of a smartphone held by an identified girl. The screen is just black.

Tahreer Photography / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • ViDok is an app created to gather crowdsourced information that may help researchers identify drugs to effectively treat COVID-19.
  • Users (who do not need a medical degree) have access to a database of available drugs. They can use the app to test how well each drug will bind to a key COVID-19 protein.
  • The researchers hope the app will help reveal potential treatments for COVID-19 that can be further tested.

Vaccines and drugs to treat COVID-19 are being developed in labs all over the world. A new app allows you to participate in the search from the comfort of your home. You don't need a medical degree—or even a background in chemistry—to get involved. All you need is a smartphone.

ViDok is a crowdsourcing app that lets users access a database of drugs that might treat COVID-19 and tweak them to work more effectively. The app was developed by Thanh Truong. PhD, a professor of chemistry at the University of Utah, and his colleagues at the Institute for Computational Science and Technology in Vietnam.

“The research tools and resources that are currently being used for doing the research in drug design are now accessible and user-friendly,” Truong tells Verywell “So the people who don’t have much chemistry knowledge—or have some—can participate in the process at the same time as the people who are the experts.” 

How the App Works

ViDok has a library of drugs—in the form of molecules—that are currently on the market and are likely to bind well to a key protein in SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). In the app, users can test each drug's effectiveness by selecting a molecule from the app's library and see how well it binds to the protein.

Screenshots from the ViDok app.
 Thanh Truong

The app determines the binding strength of the molecule to the protein, which lets users know if it’s a good fit or not. From there, users can alter the structure of the molecule and test again.

The results from users’ simulations are posted to a public website, making them accessible to everyone. The crowdsourced information will hopefully lead to further research and testing.

Truong says the process is similar to looking through a box of old keys to find the one that best fits a lock. “You can go ahead and modify any way you like, because [the app] will tell you if [the molecule] is a better fit or worse fit."

The process also takes the burden of the early drug screening phase off of researchers.

“Researchers, pharmaceutical companies, or universities can look at these results, and say, ‘Okay, this seems to be one of the best. I can check that, go into the lab, and do testing,’” Truong says. “The app is [designed] to complete the initial stage of the screening and optimizations so that the researcher doesn't have to do that.”

Sue Feldman, PhD

Technology will definitely speed up medical advancement and breakthroughs and we are already seeing that.

— Sue Feldman, PhD

The technology can save time and money, too. As users play with molecules, they are helping contribute to important treatment research—which can be costly and time-consuming when it's only done in a lab. “You can get drugs coming out to the market faster and cheaper because a lot of people are contributing to the research at the beginning,” Truong says.

Technology and Our COVID-19 Response

While apps like ViDok are changing the way researchers approach science, technology has played a significant role in attempting to slow the spread of the virus, too.

Screening and Contact Tracing

Since the pandemic began, apps have been developed to help screen people for COVID-19, perform contact tracing, and notify people of possible exposure. 

“Technology will definitely speed up medical advancement and breakthroughs and we are already seeing that,” Sue Feldman, PhD, director of graduate programs in health informatics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), tells Verywell.

Researchers at UAB developed the platform GuideSafe, which includes a COVID-19 exposure notification app. While there is no one “magic bullet” that will stop the spread of COVID-19, Feldman says, a “collection of tools, apps and behaviors—and tools that modify behaviors” can mitigate it. 

Thanh Truong, PhD

All of these crowdsourced ideas leverage people’s resources, and here, we leverage human intelligence.

— Thanh Truong, PhD

Helping Businesses

These tools can also help businesses operate as safely as possible during the pandemic, Ryan Gold, the co-founder of SAFEN Labs, tells Verywell. The SAFEN app is a self-screening tool that workplaces can use with their employees.

The goal of the SAFEN app is to prevent anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19 from coming into a workplace and potentially passing it on to others. 

“Currently, we have a variety of companies benefiting from the SAFEN screening, including companies with office workers, manufacturing facilities, and [those who work in] hospitality,” Gold says. 

Researchers are still working on bringing a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine to the market. Until then, hand washing, face masks, social distancing, and testing are all important aspects of preventing the transmission of the virus.

Looking Ahead

The pandemic has challenged researchers, scientists, and app developers, but it has also brought about advancements and tools that will hopefully improve health care in the long-term. 

“While I hope that we never have another pandemic such as this, I do believe that people will be more accustomed to downloading apps on their phones that contribute to the greater good,” Feldman says.

Truong is hopeful that the ViDok app will inspire people to get involved in the fight against the novel coronavirus—even if they’re not science whizzes.

“The fact is that all of these crowdsourced ideas leverage people’s resources, and here, we leverage human intelligence," Truong says. "By looking at the [app’s] results, and seeing how well a certain drug candidate binds to the target protein, humans can use their eyes and analyze without needing much knowledge in chemistry.”

ViDok is available in the Apple App Store and Google Play.

What This Means For You

You don't need a medical degree or even a background in chemistry to use the new crowdsourcing app that aims to help researchers find effective drugs to treat COVID-19.

If successful, the information gleaned from the ViDok app could reduce the amount of time and money spent on lab research and make treatments for COVID-19 available sooner.

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