The coronavirus crisis is becoming every day as the virus spreads across the world at an exponential rate. However, research is also moving at an accelerated pace — virtually all the world’s foremost scientists and public health experts are rallying together to find solutions to the pandemic.
Using IBM’s Summit — the world’s fastest supercomputer capable of 200 quadrillion calculations per second — researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory looked for chemical substances that might interact with the novel coronavirus and stop it from spreading.
Finding what works
Coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes the COVID-19 respiratory illness — infect individuals by hijacking their cells. The commandeered cells then start replicating viral material. Each infected cell can release millions of copies of the virus before the cell finally breaks down and dies. Then, these viruses can infect nearby cells or end up in droplets that escape the lungs (the main site of infection for SARS-CoV-2) through sneezing or coughing, thereby potentially infecting other people.
The coronavirus is named after the crownlike spikes that protrude from its surface. It is through these spikes that the virus injects genetic material into host cells in order to replicate.
Researchers at Oak Ridge led by Micholas Smith employed Summit’s phenomenal computing power to simulate how various atoms and particles in the coronavirus spike chemically react to different compounds.
After thousands of simulations, the researchers identified 77 candidate chemicals that could bind to the spike protein of the coronavirus and block it from hijacking cells.
These chemicals, which were reported in the pre-print server ChemRxiv, could be employed in novel vaccines or antiviral treatments meant to curtail the spread of COVID-19 or even cure the disease.
The researchers plan on performing more simulations as they receive more information about the coronavirus proteins and how it spreads. A more accurate model of the coronavirus’ protein spike appeared this month, and the researchers at Oak Ridge plan on including it for their next simulations.
However, these chemicals will still have to be incorporated into a vaccine or antiviral drug, and then tested in clinical trials — which can last at least six months.
So, despite researchers’ best efforts, it will take time to find treatments that are both efficient and safe. In the meantime, it is important to curb the spread of the virus by practicing social distancing and good hygiene. This whole situation might take a while to unfold, so brace yourself.