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Using computer simulations to fight Zika

July 11, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 28

In “Gearing Up to Fight Zika,” H. Alex Brown, a Vanderbilt University professor who works on antivirals, says, “If we can develop more tools to combat broad categories of viruses, I think we would be much better off than we are today” (C&EN, Feb. 22, page 33). We are in agreement with Brown’s suggestion.

The Zika virus is currently spreading across the world at large, terrifying pregnant women who fear malformed babies. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), warns that 3 million to 4 million people in the Americas could be infected with Zika this year. National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci suggests that experimental vaccine testing for Zika could enter clinical trials by year-end 2016, but widely available vaccines are still years away.

In August 2009, one of this letter’s authors, Herb Budd, a former director of science centers for IBM in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, organized a meeting on virus simulation and noted the following: “What if we could simulate a virus, as we can now simulate the airflow around an airplane [using computers]? … I propose that a dedicated structure be built up and put in place permanently. It would focus on viral computations and related issues and would try to keep us safe in the permanent race against simple pathogens.”

Obviously, a concerted effort is required to halt the continuing onslaught of constantly mutating and devastating viral attacks, which the future must surely hold. Only basic science can develop the knowledge required to stop future viral pandemics.

The very first step must be to bring together the appropriate experts in biology and medicine, along with people in information technology, to evaluate the possibility of creating a supercomputer-based virus simulation facility (VSF) able to simulate viruses at atomic and molecular resolution.

This would be a long-overdue first in the world of biology and medicine. The investment would produce a huge potential payback in a relatively short time and would be tiny compared with investments in, say, particle physics.

For example, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) operates the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The U.S. contributed $531 million to support the LHC. Imagine where we could be now with only a fraction of such funding for the VSF—especially because in the past decade supercomputer performance has improved significantly.

The possibility of political support for our suggestion is not at all remote. There is general awareness that stronger support of basic science is critical to national health. Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, recently urged that the budget for the National Institutes of Health should be doubled. Bernard Munos in a recent article lamented the aging of our biomedical research. Surely we must not hesitate because of a bias toward funding “safe science” versus bold science. Funding bold science is nothing short of a necessity.

We also recall that President Barack Obama called for a National Strategic Computing Initiative to achieve exaflop performance, which fits well with the suggestion we have presented here. Lastly, we quote WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier, who refers to the need for clear Zika guidance based on “deep science.”

Herb Budd
Neuilly, France

Lou Massa
New York City

June 27, page 26: In the feature story “The Decline of the Cigarette Filter,” cellulose acetate manufacturing was described incorrectly. To make cellulose acetate, companies expose wood pulp to acetic anhydride, which replaces hydrogen atoms in hydroxyl groups with acetyl groups, forming acetoxy groups.



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