Covid Policies at HPC Conferences Should Reflect HPC Research

By Oliver Peckham and Tiffany Trader

June 6, 2022

Supercomputing has been indispensable throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, from modeling the virus and its spread to designing vaccines and therapeutics. But, despite supercomputers’ formative role in our understanding of Covid-19, supercomputing conferences have been aligning their Covid policies more closely with local ordinances than with that hard-won scientific knowledge. That should change.

Covid at HPC conferences

ISC 2022 was an exceptional showing for the conference organizers, supercomputing (exascale, officially!) and the European HPC community. Unfortunately, those successes now have a SARS-CoV-2-shaped asterisk. Over the past several days, several high-profile attendees have taken to Twitter to reveal that they tested positive for Covid-19 at or immediately after ISC 2022. Further, HPCwire can confirm that there were additional Covid infections among ISC 2022 attendees, including (but not limited to) two of HPCwire’s own eight-person contingent. (Both of our team members who tested positive are recovering well and have since tested negative.)

ISC 2022 did not have a vaccination requirement or a mask requirement, with the notable exception of the main keynote hall, which did require masks for entry. The conference did recommend social distancing and masking with FFP2 masks (which the conference made readily available and which are roughly equivalent to a KN95 or N95 mask). However, neither of those recommendations were widely followed among attendees, with the exception of a rigorous few. The ISC 2022 Covid policies aligned with the Covid policies in Hamburg, Germany, where ISC 2022 was held: Hamburg only requires FFP2 masks in a few specific areas (like healthcare facilities and public transport).

If you’re having a sense of déjà vu, you’re not alone. A similar conversation emerged ahead of SC21 in St. Louis, Missouri, the first major supercomputing conference to return to an in-person format in the wake of the Covid vaccines. In August 2021, the SC21 chair said that the conference would not implement a vaccine requirement unless required to do so by the city of St. Louis; after several weeks of community outcry, the conference changed course to require proof of vaccination. The conference also required indoor masking, in line with the mask mandate in St. Louis at the time. HPCwire did hear of one person who contracted Covid at a party during SC21.

The health and safety implications of Covid exposure are far and away the most important, but Covid risks also have implications for the conferences themselves. At least one person was not able to present at ISC 2022 due to their positive test; others missed important meetings due to their positive tests or the need to test in the wake of direct exposure. For those who tested positive at ISC 2022, the financial and logistical burdens of the mandatory quarantine (a minimum of five days) have been severe. Previously, ahead of SC21, many speakers and exhibitors chose to pull out of the conference or go virtual amid concerns over Covid spread at the conference. We believe that positive Covid tests and elevated fears of contracting Covid are almost certainly much more detrimental to these conferences than any inconveniences that might stem from mask or vaccine requirements.

Our community’s challenging responsibility

For the past three years, all of us have had to contend with difficult decisions, and many of us have felt guilt, anxiety and uncertainty as the science and the circumstances rapidly evolved. It bears mentioning that navigating the tension between what is required and what is advisable in terms of Covid policy for a major conference is an extraordinarily unenviable task with little precedent, few constant variables and even fewer broadly accepted (let alone adhered-to) norms. It’s also worth noting that there will likely remain a significant and inherent Covid risk associated with travel in the coming years – a risk over which conference organizers have no control outside of host city selection.

Nevertheless, we believe that supercomputing conferences in particular have a responsibility to exemplify the best scientific understanding of Covid spread in their policies. Much of that understanding, as it pertains to gatherings, stems directly from supercomputing research – particularly research on Riken’s Fugaku supercomputer, which launched a year ahead of schedule specifically to support Covid research and which placed first on four consecutive Top500 lists. The research conducted on Fugaku has consistently elucidated how viral droplets spread in shared spaces and interact with barriers like masks and face shields.

Indeed, in the Twitter conversation surrounding Covid infections at ISC 2022, Satoshi Matsuoka – director of Riken’s Center for Computational Science – cited Fugaku-based research. “According to Fugaku simulations, masks protect well against someone infected not showering droplets&aerosols around them,” Matsuoka tweeted. “[Masking] is effective but less against inhaling aerosols w/viruses. As such they are very effective if everyone wears them.”

In alignment with this and other research, Riken’s 19-person contingent at the conference was triple-vaccinated, fully masked throughout the conference and tested negative via PCR test before and after the conference. Not everyone exhibiting this level of care was so lucky, though: Addison Snell, who tested positive after ISC, was employing similar measures – but, as Matsuoka indicated, there is only so much that an uninfected individual’s mask will protect them if few others are wearing one. For truly effective protection, there needs to be broad adoption of preventative measures.

It is time to exceed the minimum requirements

The next major supercomputing conference will be SC22, held in Dallas, Texas, from November 13-18, 2022. The state of Texas currently has an executive order banning organizations – including private businesses – from mandating vaccines for their customers. However, Time reported that many businesses were ignoring this ban, and it is also unclear whether this ban would affect the NY- and NJ-based organizations behind SC22 if they were, for instance, to require proof of vaccination during registration rather than at the conference center. There is no ban in Texas that prevents private businesses from mandating masks. The SC22 Covid page, for its part, says that the organizers “are committed to following regional jurisdiction guidelines and rules in maintaining a safe environment for our attendees.”

HPCwire hopes that, for the foreseeable future, supercomputing conferences exceed the minimum requirements and commit themselves, instead, to Covid policies guided by the outstanding science made possible by supercomputers.

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