IBM and Honeywell sign on with White House to help fight COVID-19

Cincinnati Enquirer staff writer Ann Sacker explains the steps you should take if you believe you have the novel coronavirus. USA TODAY

IBM is looking to supercomputers to help find a cure to the COVID-19 virus, with a consortium that includes many top universities and labs, Amazon, Google and Microsoft, according to President Donald Trump, who announced it in the daily COVID-19 task force briefing at the White House on Sunday. 

"We are going to unleash the power of supercomputers to fight" the virus, Trump said.

IBM calls it the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium and says it will bring an "unprecedented amount" of computing power – with more than 265 petaflops, 775,000 CPU cores, 34,000 GPUs and counting –  "to help researchers everywhere better understand COVID-19, its treatments and potential cures."

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For context, a petaflop enables a computer to move at super fast speeds, CPUs are the processors that function as the brains of computers, and GPUs, like the processors used for gaming functions on a gaming console, can quickly render data-heavy graphics, images and video.  

Dario Gil, Director of IBM Research, says these high-performance computing systems allow researchers to run very large numbers of calculations in epidemiology, bioinformatics and molecular modeling. "These experiments would take years to complete if worked by hand, or months if handled on slower, traditional computing platforms."

IBM says it's working with Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Argonne National Lab, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the National Science Foundation, NASA and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Trump added that Google, Microsoft and Amazon are part of the consortium, as well. USA TODAY has reached out to all three. 

IBM said its Summit supercomputer has 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. "They were able to discover the 77 most promising small-molecule drug compounds that should now be experimentally tested. This is the power of accelerating discovery through computation."

Additionally, Trump said Honeywell will expand its personal protective equipment manufacturing operations in Smithfield, Rhode Island, and "produce millions of N95" protective masks.

Honeywell confirmed the announcement. “We are honored to support the U.S. government’s efforts to protect Americans with personal protective equipment made right here in the United States,” said Darius Adamczyk, Honeywell chairman and chief executive officer. “Our Rhode Island facility already produces industry-leading safety gear and soon will play a critical role in supplying the Strategic National Stockpile with N95 masks.”

Honeywell said it expects the move to add some 500 new jobs in Rhode Island. 

In a statement, Amazon said it was proud to be part of the super computer team. “Working together, government, business and academic leaders can utilize the power of the cloud to advance the pace of scientific discovery and innovation, and help combat the COVID-19 virus," said Teresa Carlson, vice president of Amazon's AWS division.

Google said in a statement that it looks forward to participating "and identifying ways that data-driven research can help counter this global pandemic. To help do so, Google will provide access to high-performance computing capabilities to researchers and academic institutions, chosen through a proposal process, which meet our criteria for educational grants.” 


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