Coronavirus (COVID-19): In the global effort to tackle the novel coronavirus pandemic, many countries have now employed supercomputers to help expedited research into the virus. Scientists are using supercomputers for several challenging tasks, such as understanding how the virus spreads in a community, how it infects the human body, as well as for possibly finding a cure and vaccine. Supercomputers have also been used during past outbreaks, including the 2015 Zika epidemic and the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic.
How can supercomputers help in the fight against the novel coronavirus?
- As COVID-19 cases have been mounting the world over, an abundance of data is being made available to researchers, which supercomputers are using for modelling and analysis. Due to their high processing power, supercomputers are able to perform these functions months faster than regular computers, and years sooner than if done by hand.
- To help find a drug that could work against the novel coronavirus, supercomputers are being employed to look through databases of existing drug compounds. The novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has spikes on its surface, which it uses to invade cells in the human body. Supercomputers are looking for antiviral drugs that could potentially bind with those spikes, thus inhibiting the virus from infecting humans.
- In the US, these machines have been able to simulate 8,000 compounds and have identified 77 molecules that could work against the virus. Further efforts are now underway to refine the list and identify which of those drug compounds and molecules have the highest binding affinity with the virus, thus being able to disarm it most efficiently.
- These computers can also help in developing a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, by identifying the virus proteins that can help create immunity among humans.
- The other ways in which supercomputers are helping include studying the structure and origin of the novel coronavirus, analysing the spread of the virus in a population, as well as how it interacts with cells in the human body.
Where are supercomputers being used?
- In the US, a massive public-private effort called the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium has been launched, consisting industry players such as IBM, Google, and Amazon, academic institutions such as MIT and Carnegie Mellon, along with government laboratories and agencies including NASA. The consortium participants are together providing scientists access to some of the world’s most powerful high-performance computing resources in support of COVID-19 research.
- According to The White House press release, the supercomputers that are part of the consortium “can process massive numbers of calculations related to bioinformatics, epidemiology, and molecular modeling, helping scientists develop answers to complex scientific questions about COVID-19 in hours or days versus weeks or months.”
- In Japan, the government and the country’s top research laboratory will be using the Fugaku supercomputer, a successor to the ‘K’ computer– which in the past was known to have the highest calculation speed in the world. According to a report in the South China Morning Post, the Tianhe-1 supercomputer in China has been using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to diagnose COVID-19 patients from chest scans.
In India, the government owned Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) has announced that it would collaborate with laboratories of National Institute of Virology (NIV), IITs, Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER), labs operating under Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Department of Biotechnology (DBT), as well industries and start-ups for performing drug repurposing simulations required towards the discovery of a new drug for COVID-19.