How an IBM supercomputer is helping in the fight against Covid-19

Summit, the fastest computer, is now available to researchers worldwide after it ran thousands of simulations to analyse what drug combinations may stop the pandemic

FILE - In this March 18, 2019, photo the logo for IBM appears above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. IBM is offering up its speedy supercomputer to help combat the new coronavirus. The technology company said Sunday, March 22, 2020, that it is working with the White House and the U.S. Department of Energy to make its computing power more accessible to researchers tackling the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
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US tech company IBM is partnering with the White House to use supercomputing power and help researchers working to fight the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

IBM, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and US Department of Energy will roll out the Covid-19 High Performance Computing Consortium to offer “an unprecedented amount of computing power”, said Dario Gil, director of IBM Research.

The supercomputer is expected to assist researchers around the world to better understand the virus and build predictive models to analyse its progress as a disease. The machine can also help explore potential treatments or formulate a vaccine.

Covid-19 is the greatest challenge to scientists since the 1918 Spanish Flu, spreading to every continent except Antarctica. The global death toll is now approaching 15,000, with more than 341,000 confirmed cases and nearly 99,000 recoveries as of Monday, according to Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking the outbreak.

IBM Summit, by some assessments the world's fastest supercomputer, has enabled scientists to run simulations of what drug compounds may work against the virus, coming up with 77 recommendations.

“It took us a day or two, whereas it would have taken months on a normal computer,” said Jeremy Smith, governor’s chair at the University of Tennessee, director of the UT/ORNL Center for Molecular Biophysics, and principal researcher in the study. “Our results do not mean that we have found a cure or treatment for Covid-19. We are very hopeful, though, that our computational findings will both inform future studies and provide a framework that experimentalists will use to further investigate these compounds.”

Coronavirus: What is a pandemic?

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The new consortium will review research proposals from around the world and make Summit's supercomputing power available to projects that can have the most immediate effect. Technical assistance will be offered to researchers using it.

“These high-performance computing systems allow researchers to run very large numbers of calculations in epidemiology, bioinformatics and molecular modeling,” Mr Gil said. “These experiments would take years to complete if worked by hand, or months if handled on slower, traditional computing platforms.”

Summit has been working on some of the world’s biggest problem-solving challenges since 2018. It has helped researchers understand the origins of the universe, mapped the role of genetics in the opioid crisis and showed how humans may someday land on Mars.


This is not the first time an IBM supercomputer has assisted in scientific breakthrough. Sixteen years ago, IBM’s Blue Gene played a critical role in sequencing the human genome, opening the door for new drugs and treatments.

Blue Gene went on to simulate approximately 1 per cent of a human cerebral cortex, containing 1.6 billion neurons with approximately 9 trillion connections, leading to a greater understanding of the human brain.

Other partners taking part in the new consortium include Nasa, Massachusetts Institute of Technology , Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Argonne National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories and the US National Science Foundation.