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Crowdsourced virtual supercomputer revs up virus research
By Rob Lever
Washington (AFP) March 22, 2020

China embarks on clinical trial for virus vaccine
Beijing (AFP) March 22, 2020 - China has started the first phase of a clinical trial for a novel coronavirus vaccine, records show, as the world's scientists race to find a way to combat the deadly pathogen.

It comes after US health officials said last week they had started a trial to evaluate a possible vaccine in Seattle.

The Chinese effort began on March 16 -- the same day as the US announcement -- and is expected to continue until the end of the year, according to a filing in the country's Clinical Trial Registry, dated March 17.

"Volunteers of the COVID-19 phase one trial have already started receiving the vaccine," a staff member involved in the government-funded project told AFP on Sunday.

The 108 participants, aged between 18 and 60, will be tested in three groups and given different dosages. They are all residents of the central city of Wuhan -- where the new coronavirus first emerged late last year.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages and governments step up protection measures, pharmaceutical companies and research labs around the world are working at full tilt.

There are currently no approved vaccines or medication for the new disease, which has killed more than 13,000 people worldwide so far.

The vaccine trial announcements come amid an escalating feud between the US and China over the pandemic, with President Donald Trump enraging Beijing by speaking of the "Chinese virus".

China's nationalistic Global Times published an opinion piece last week noting "the development of a vaccine is a battle that China cannot afford to lose".

But the quest is expected to take time -- the US candidate vaccine may take another year to 18 months before becoming available.

An antiviral treatment called remdesivir, made by US-based Gilead Sciences, is already in the final stages of clinical trials in Asia and doctors in China have reported it has proven effective in fighting the disease.

But only randomised trials will allow scientists to know for sure if it really helps or whether patients would have recovered without it.

Gamers, bitcoin "miners" and companies large and small have teamed up for an unprecedented data-crunching effort that aims to harness idle computing power to accelerate research for a coronavirus treatment.

The project led by computational biologists has effectively created the world's most powerful supercomputer that can handle trillions of calculations needed to understand the structure of the virus.

More than 400,000 users downloaded the application in the past two weeks from "Folding@Home," according to director Greg Bowman, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Washington University in St. Louis, where the project is based.

The "distributed computing" effort ties together thousands of devices to create a virtual supercomputer.

The project originally launched at Stanford University 20 years ago was designed to use crowdsourced computing power for simulations to better understand diseases, especially "protein folding" anomalies that can make pathogens deadly.

"The simulations allow us to watch how every atom moves throughout time," Bowman told AFP.

The massive analysis looks for "pockets" or holes in the virus where a drug can be squeezed in.

"Our primary objective is to hunt for binding sites for therapeutics," Bowman said.

- 'Druggable targets' -

The powerful computing effort can test potential drug therapies, a technique known as computational drug design.

Bowman said he is optimistic about this effort because the team previously found a "druggable" target in the Ebola virus and because COVID-19 is structurally similar to the SARS virus which has been the subject of many studies.

"The best opportunity for the near-term future is if we can find an existing drug that can bind to one of these sites," he said.

"If that happens it could be used right away."

This is likely to include drugs like the antimalarials chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine which may be "repurposed" for COVID-19.

Bowman said the project has been able to boost its power to some 400 petaflops -- with each petaflop having a capacity to carry out one quadrillion calculations per second -- or three times more powerful than the world's top supercomputers.

Other supercomputers are also working in parallel. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory said earlier this month that by using IBM's most powerful supercomputer it had identified 77 potential compounds that could bind to the main "spike" protein of the coronavirus to disarm the pathogen.

- 'No end' to compute power -

The Folding@Home project is fueled by crowdsourced computing power from people's desktops, laptops and even PlayStation consoles, as well as more powerful business computers and servers.

"There is no end to the compute power than we can use in principle," Bowman said. Large tech firms including Microsoft-owned GitHub are also participating, and the project is in discussions with others.

Anyone with a relatively recent computer can contribute by installing a program which downloads a small amount of data for analysis. People can choose which disease they wish to work on.

"It's like bitcoin mining, but in the service of humanity," said Quentin Rhoads-Herrera of the security firm Critical Start, which has provided its powerful password "hash cracker" computer designed to decrypt passwords to the project.

Rhoads-Herrera said his team of security researchers, sometimes described as "white hat hackers," were encouraging more people to get involved.

- Fighting helplessness -

Computer chipmaker Nvidia, which makes powerful graphics processors for gaming devices, called on gamers to join the effort as well.

"The response has been record-breaking, with tens of thousands of new users," joining, said Nvidia spokesman Hector Marinez.

One of the largest contributions comes from a Reddit group of PC enthusiasts and gamers which has some 24,000 members participating.

"It is a fantastic weapon against the feeling of helplessness," said Pedro Valadas, a lawyer in Portugal who heads the Reddit community and is a part of the project's advisory board.

"The fact that anyone, at home, with a computer, can play a role and help fight against (disease) for the common good is a powerful statement," Valadas told AFP.

Related Links
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