In the midst of the first significant Zika outbreak within the continental United States, IBM is joining global partners to intensify their fight against the disease.
As part of the IBM Impact Grants, the company announced last week they will commit pro bono resources and technology to the public health community in an effort to tackle the “health care challenge,” said Stanley Litow, president of the IBM International Foundation.
“Because there’s so little money for this kind of research, a lot of research projects don’t even get started,” he said. “There are a lot of people on the ground that are mobilizing for a solution but don’t have access.”
IBM will offer a variety of resources to the researchers and scientists investigating the spread of Zika, especially in Brazil.
The tools will include a virtual, crowdsourcing supercomputer, an IBM-supported hackathon in Brazil to create public health apps, and weather data that could provide insights into the environmental conditions that support the life cycle of Zika-carrying mosquitoes.
“You can spend all your resources on the best researchers and scientists,” Litow said, speaking to the public health community, “and we’ll give you millions and millions of dollars of supercomputing power for free.”
Of the projects IBM hopes to support, the World Community Grid supercomputer is among the “most innovative,” Litow said. Named the OpenZika project, it leverages spare computing power donated by the public to screen millions of chemical compounds and identify candidates for Zika treatments.
More than 50,000 volunteers from around the world have donated the equivalent of 4,000 years of computing time and have completed more than 20,000 virtual experiments, according to a release from IBM. The supercomputer has saved researchers about $1.5 million in equivalent computing resources.
“It’s individuals who are getting directly involved,” Litow said. “It’s a way of bringing this research project home to an individual through crowdsourcing and building a network of people.”
IBM’s involvement in Zika research focuses on innovative approaches to long-term solutions for the disease.
“We’re not naive. We know that’s not going to happen in weeks,” Litow said.
But looking at the short-term future of Zika, IBM still hopes to make a dent in the accomplishments and progress of researchers on the ground in areas of severe epidemic.
Litow said supercomputing is “the future of Zika” and, combined with technological advances, it really “does hold promise being able to address these challenges.”
Overall, Litow said, solving public health problems like Zika is about collaboration between community partners and the integration of creative technology. IBM hopes with an enhancement of the resources they already offer, they’ll play a role in ultimately stopping the spread of Zika.
“We’ve realized that it’s not one thing,” he said. “You can’t just find the silver bullet. You’ve got to be able to have an integrated and comprehensive response.”
Felicia Gans is an editorial intern at MedTech Boston. She will be a senior this fall at Boston University, where she is studying journalism, political science, and computer science. When she's not working, Felicia loves drinking coffee, jamming out to Broadway music, and reading the news.
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