Beating the Coronavirus

Until recently it was all normal. The hustle and bustle of daily life, heaving streets in the city-centers, it was all fine in most parts of the world. In less than a month the world woke up to the scare of Coronavirus outbreak which has changed the course of life. The virus that originated in Wuhan city of China on Dec-31 has so far left 3 lakh sick and 11-thousand dead. Many effected countries are under Coronavirus lockdown. Shops, offices, schools, business, malls, stores are all shut and the traffic is off the roads. The places look ghost-towns, empty and deserted with eerie silence. They do not understand how this reality was imposed on them and when this whole nightmare will end. The virus has spread to more than 150 countries; the news channels flooded with information about the outbreak telecast nonstop on the issue, causing fear and panic. The WHO has already declared the Coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. People are confused, sad, anxious and helpless and don’t know when they will be able to get on with their lives. It is eerily uncertain. The disease is spreading like wildfire and there is no vaccine or some treatment for it as yet and people don’t know how deadly it actually is. The experts believe that it can affect 60% of the globe if left unchecked. Nobody in their wildest dreams would have ever thought that we will be passing through such a phase of life.

While COVID-19 spreads rapidly, more than 90% of its patients make a full recovery. The pathogen causes respiratory illness with symptoms such as a cough, fever and in more severe cases, difficulty in breathing. The viruses spread typically when an infected person coughs or sneezes, spraying droplets that can transmit the virus to anyone in close contact. The Coronavirus is named after the crown like spikes that protrude from its surface which allow the virus to bind to and infect human cells. The research has started worldwide, the scientists are rushing to find a promising candidate drugs to fight this epidemic virus that could help patients recover sooner. The world’s most powerful supercomputer called IBM’s Summit equipped with Artificial Intelligence at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in US has been pressed into services. In February, the researchers used simulations to screen through a library of 8,000 known compounds to find those which are most effective against the corona virus that are most likely to bind to the main spike protein of the corona virus to limit its ability to spread and infect host cells. These drugs included chemicals, herbal medicines and natural products that have been already approved in humans. The researchers programmed the Summit to search for a very specific type of compound in view of the Chinese researchers publishing in January a report revealing that the virus, now known as SARS-CoV-2, was similar to the Coronavirus. The summit narrowed down the list of 77-compounds in just two days which could have taken few months by normal computers.

The fight against the Coronavirus is just one example of how supercomputers have become an essential part of the process of discovery during a global outbreak of an infectious disease that has no known treatments. The Summit has nearly 4,600 nodes and with each node having computing power equivalent to the thousands of our laptops. They are like thousands of general-purpose computers all working for you on the same problem at the same time, what we call parallel computing. It takes a problem, chops it into pieces, assigns to all the individual nodes and then brings all those pieces back together to reconstitute the solution of the problem. The Summit performs 200 quadrillion calculations each second, roughly a million times more computing power than the average laptop. The simulations can examine how different variables react with different viruses and each of these individual variables can be comprised of billions of unique pieces of data. It is not certain whether any of 77-compounds will work or not. If any of the compounds work, it should be much quicker than the typical drug development process to get its approval and widespread use. If it works in animals, scientists could skip the initial safety trial in people and go straight to testing drugs for their effectiveness in those who are sick. Developing drugs is a very lengthy, complex and costly process and it is quite uncertain that a drug will actually succeed or not. It can take many years for a new medicine to reach the market from the time it was discovered. In case of Corona we may see hype in the claims of drug-making but only time will tell.

As the news about COVID-19 deaths becomes more and more widespread, people are on tenterhooks and one doesn’t know how to respond because it is something which has happened to us for the first time. There are devastating scenes from Italy. The big mistake was that at the start of the first hit, people continued to lead their lives as usual and took to the streets for work, entertainment and engagements in social gatherings. The Italian took it lightly until many thousand deaths and countless people were infected and Govt sends police to patrol streets to enforce restrictions to keep people in their houses. If the restrictions are lifted then cases will inevitably soar again. Now staying at home has become a national duty for them. The national lockdown has led to a renewed sense of unity among Italians. But people in many countries including India are still not grasping the gravity of the crisis when it has become a matter of life and death for them. Only restrictions and lockdowns of hot spots will slow the spread of Coronavirus, whether it is Kashmir or any part of India. Acting severely is the only possible way to beat the spread of the virus. Of course, we have to follow all the guidelines including the most important one of maintaining social distancing. Let us be optimistic and reassure ourselves not to lose our faith or confidence. Death is not certain, but the contagion is real.

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