Facing a Dark Winter, the COVID-19 HPC Consortium Doubles Down on Triage

By Oliver Peckham

November 16, 2020

In March, IBM, the U.S. Department of Energy and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy launched an unprecedented initiative: the COVID-19 HPC Consortium. The wide-ranging consortium, aimed at leveraging worldwide supercomputing to fight the coronavirus, has since expanded to include 43 members (many international) and 600 petaflops of computing power (up from 330 in March), allocating those resources to more than 90 projects.

In the last eight months, however, much has changed beyond the size of the consortium: the physical structure of the virus (an emphasis for COVID-focused supercomputing in the spring and summer) is now much better understood; a viable vaccine now appears on track for scaled distribution by the spring of 2021; and after a year of dread, massive spikes in Europe and the U.S. signal that much of the world may indeed be staring down an extraordinarily dark winter.

With these factors in mind, the COVID-19 HPC Consortium has announced that it is entering a “new phase” of its operation: one focused on benefiting patients over the next six months.

A new phase for the consortium

“In just eight months, we’ve brought together an unprecedented scale of computing power to support COVID-19 research, and dozens of projects have already utilized these resources,” said Dario Gil, director of IBM Research. “At this stage, the Consortium partners believe that our combined computing resources now hold the potential to benefit patients in the near-term, as well as offering the potential for longer-term scientific breakthroughs.”  

Specifically, the consortium will support projects working on understanding and modeling patient response to the virus; learning and validating vaccine response models from multiple clinical trials; evaluating combination therapies using repurposed molecules; and designing epidemiological models.

The six-month time frame works out to a mid-November to mid-May window, which aligns with increasing expectations of general vaccine availability in April or May. Last week, Anthony Fauci said that the Pfizer vaccine – which the company reports as having a remarkable 90-percent-plus efficacy – should be available to general populations by “the end of April.” With this window, then, the HPC Consortium seems to be specifically aiming to play triage and reduce losses as much as possible over the course of the winter in anticipation of broad vaccination efforts.

For researchers, there will be no additional call for submissions; everything will proceed as it did in phase one, with one key difference.

“The research proposals have never stopped — they’ll just be evaluated in the context of phase two objectives,” Jamie Thomas, general manager of Strategy and Development for IBM Systems, told HPCwire. “We certainly want to create a seamless environment as we move from phase to phase and not slow down any research that is germane and effective.”

Six months, of course, is a long time in a pandemic, but a short time in the research world. Asked about that ambitious schedule, Thomas pointed to research projects that had used supercomputing to produce results in days, then stressed the now nearly doubled aggregate computing capacity of the consortium. “We would certainly expect that speed would be an element of what we’re able to achieve here,” she said.

Beyond phase two

A “phase two,” of course, begs the question: will there be a “phase three”? And, given the window, would a third phase focus more on vaccine distribution and a post-vaccine world?

“It’s a great question,” Thomas said. “I think we’ll learn from phase two … and then that will inform us about what we need to do next. Certainly, there’s room and ideas around having scientific resources and reserves available on a more ongoing basis.”

Thomas also referred to a letter sent by IBM CEO Arvind Krishna to President-elect Joe Biden last week. In the letter, Krishna advised Biden to “establish a Scientific Readiness Reserve – a body of scientists and computing resources from the private sector that can be swiftly mobilized in times of crisis,” citing the groundwork laid by the COVID-19 HPC Consortium.

The COVID-19 HPC Consortium spans industry members like AWS, AMD, Nvidia and Intel; academic participants like MIT, UT Austin, and CSCS; international agencies and laboratories like KISTI and RIKEN; and the Department of Energy’s national laboratories. The full list is here — but that list might continue to grow.

“As we go through phase two, if others want to participate, I’m sure that we’ll be willing to consider additional members,” Thomas said. “Some of the [participating] countries are newer to this consortium and I’m sure they’re going to bring in other proposed partners – you always see that when you’re creating an ecosystem like this.”

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