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IBM supercomputer to help find COVID-19 cure

Read time 4min 10sec

IBM says it is working closely with governments across the globe to put its technology and expertise to work, in efforts to help scientific and medical organisations accelerate the process of developing treatments and a potential cure for the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its latest move, IBM, in collaboration with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the US Department of Energy, has led the launch of the COVID-19 High Performance Computing (HPC) Consortium.

The consortium seeks to provide COVID-19 researchers worldwide with access to the world’s most powerful high-performance computing resources that can significantly advance the pace of scientific discovery, in the fight to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The virus, which originated in China’s central city of Wuhan in December, has gripped nations across the globe, claiming the lives of over 16 500 people, with a current infection rate of over 382 000 and recoveries at more than 102 000.

According to IBM, the world’s most powerful computer processor, the IBM POWER9, will be used. Together with the consortium’s computing resources, it will bring forth an unprecedented amount of computing power − 16 systems with more than 330 petaflops, 775 000 CPU cores and 34 000 GPUs − to help researchers across the globe better understand COVID-19, its treatments and potential cures.

By pooling the supercomputing capacity under a consortium of public-private partners − which include Microsoft, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Sandia National Laboratory, the National Science Foundation and Amazon Web Services − the body will offer extraordinary supercomputing power to scientists, medical researchers and government agencies as they respond to and mitigate this global emergency, says IBM.

“IBM will continue to explore everything in our power to use our technology and expertise to drive meaningful progress in this global fight to combat COVID-19,” says Dario Gil, director of IBM Research.

“I am proud to be working with my IBM colleagues and the extended scientific community to help kick-start this effort. These high-performance computing systems allow researchers to run very large numbers of calculations in epidemiology, bioinformatics and molecular modelling – experiments which would take years to complete if worked by hand, or months if handled on slower, traditional computing platforms.”

Ground-breaking research

When trying to understand new biological compounds, like viruses, IBM notes that researchers in wet labs grow the micro-organism and see how it reacts, in real-life, to the introduction of new compounds. However, this can be a slow process without computers that can perform digital simulations to narrow down the range of potential variables, but even then there are challenges.

As an example of the potential of its computing power, IBM’s supercomputer, the Summit, has already enabled researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee to screen 8 000 compounds to find those that are most likely to bind to the main “spike” protein of the coronavirus, rendering it unable to infect host cells, according to the tech giant.

“Using Summit, researchers were able to simulate 8 000 compounds in a matter of days to model which ones could impact the infection process, by binding to the virus’s spike,” explains Dave Turek, VP of Technical Computing, IBM Cognitive Systems.

“They have identified 77 small-molecule compounds, such as medications and natural compounds, which have shown the potential to impair COVID-19’s ability to dock with and infect host cells.”

Summit has massive data processing capability, enabled by its 4 608 IBM Power Systems AC922 server nodes, each equipped with two IBM POWER9 CPUs.

“The Department of Energy’s National Labs have made profound advancements towards combatting COVID-19,” says the US Department of Energy under-secretary for science Paul Dabbar.

“By providing researchers access to world-leading technology here in our own backyard, we take an additional leap towards ending this pandemic. We look forward to collaborating with scientists and researchers to bring an end to COVID-19.”

“The National Science Foundation is pleased to join the COVID-19 HPC Consortium to enhance access to the nation’s leading HPC resources, including the NSF-funded Frontera supercomputer, the world’s most powerful HPC system deployed on a US academic campus,” says France Cordova, director of the National Science Foundation.

“Frontera and other NSF-funded advanced computing resources will enable the nation’s science and engineering community to pursue data science, computational modelling and artificial intelligence approaches to help us accelerate our understanding of COVID-19 and strategies for responding to the pandemic.”

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