Frontera Supercomputer at Texas University Tackles COVID-19

Historically, the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) has served the state when called upon, using resources such as Frontera—the world’s most powerful computing system on a university campus—to work on improved models for chemical attacks, Hurricane Harvey, the West Nile virus and swine flu.

Now, TACC has turned its efforts to stopping COVID-19. The goal is to flatten the curve of the number of infected people, so TACC is providing the supercomputing power needed to better understand the virus and its spread, expose its underlying weaknesses and, ultimately, fight back.

Supercomputers are essential when trying to combat a pandemic quickly. Calculations or simulations that take regular computers days, months or even years to complete can be done by supercomputers in mere minutes or hours.

For example, TACC supercomputing resources were used to predict the speed of the coronavirus outbreak when it was first labeled an epidemic. It aided a key study that swiftly discovered the virus spreads more quickly than anticipated and sometimes even before people have symptoms.

Frontera is the fifth most powerful supercomputer in the world, and the fastest supercomputer at any university. Frontera is located at TACC at UT Austin and funded by the National Science Foundation.TACC

Even before COVID-19, the computing center was set up to help at a time of crisis. It has a tool that uses supercomputers to improve emergency health-care responses, the Texas Pandemic Flu Toolkit. It was developed in 2012 in response to H1N1 swine flu by a team of biologists, mathematicians, statisticians, engineers and computer scientists. The tool simulates the spread of pandemic flu through the state, forecasts the number of hospitalizations and determines where and when to place healthcare resources to maximize lives saved.

TACC has designed a new infrastructure specifically for COVID-19 analysis that will help the Texas health care system by modeling outcomes for the disease in 22 Texas cities depending on four scenarios of different social-distancing levels.

The analysis showed that the extent of social distancing measures and people’s willingness to adhere to them directly affects the course of the outbreak and the state’s capacity to help those in need.

U.S. scientists are currently working with TACC to create a massive computer model of the virus—all 200 million atoms—that they expect will give insight into how it infects the human body. This work builds on other models also prepared with TACC, including atomic-scale influenza virus simulations. The goal is to use the model to help design drugs and vaccines, and eventually give researchers a better understanding of how the coronavirus subcategory of viruses (which includes SARS and MERS) infects in general.

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