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Does it take a time machine to stop a pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe is caused by a novel coronavirus. This means that even though we haven’t seen this specific form before, it isn’t entirely unknown to science.

Previous research into the related viruses that caused the SARS and MERS outbreaks (in 2003 and 2012, respectively) means that scientists don’t have to start from scratch when looking for a solution. Given enough time and resources, a safe, effective treatment is well within our capabilities.

<strong>Running out of time.</strong> COVID-19 has spread rapidly around the world since the first case appeared in January 2020. In some areas, death rates are now doubling every two days. Courtesy WHO.But with death rates doubling every two days in some areas, time is exactly what we don’t have. Yet we may still be able to get ahead of this outbreak. That’s because scientists have access to a kind of time-machine that may help: supercomputers.

These machines boast faster processing speeds, extra memory, and super-sized storage capacity that can process massive numbers of calculations related to bioinformatics, epidemiology, molecular modeling, and healthcare system response.

Supercomputers can help scientists answer complex scientific questions about COVID-19 in hours or days versus weeks or months. But because these super-powered computers are so expensive, access to them is normally tightly controlled.

I am certain we will surmount this crisis. The greatest research engine in the world — the collective might of the great American research universities — is now turned squarely toward this problem in the critically urgent search for treatments and ultimately vaccines ~ Michael McRobbie, president of Indiana University

That’s why just a few days ago the US government, leading tech companies, and the nation’s top research institutions have joined forces to make sure coronavirus research gets top priority on these machines—for free.

The resulting COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium currently pools 16 systems that together offer over 330 petaflops of supercomputing capacity. Additional capacity, including cloud computing resources, will soon be added.

<strong>Understanding how the coronavirus interacts</strong> with human host cells could lead to treatments. Here, the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein of the coronavirus is simulated on NSF-funded Frontera supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). Courtesy TACC.Summit, the world’s fastest computer, located at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee has already simulated thousands of drug compounds that may be effective against COVID-19. 

Frontera, the fastest computer on a university campus, has been activated to prepare a complete all-atom model of the SARS-COV-2 coronavirus exterior in order to better understand how the virus interacts with host cells.

Other supercomputer centers such as the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, San Diego Supercomputer Center, and Indiana University are all contributing their resources to the problem.

These are just a few of the very first results of this collective effort to advance the pace of scientific discovery in order to stop the virus. But with more computers joining the consortium all the time, and an open invitation to researchers to submit requests to work on them, more results are sure to follow.

Frontera and other NSF-funded advanced computing resources will enable the Nation’s science and engineering community to pursue data science, computational modeling, and artificial intelligence approaches to help us accelerate our understanding of COVID-19 and strategies for responding to the pandemic. ~ France Cordova, Director of the National Science Foundation

The NSF-funded XSEDE (Extreme Scientific and Engineering Discovery Environment), which already connects researchers to computing resources will evaluate research proposals submitted to the COVID-19 High Performance Computing consortium. 

Researchers are invited to submit COVID-19 related research proposals to the consortium via this online portal, which will then be reviewed for matching with computing resources from one of the partner institutions. An expert panel comprised of top scientists and computing researchers will work with proposers to assess the public health benefit of the work, with emphasis on projects that can ensure rapid results.

HPC Resources available to fight COVID-19

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