Tech in the Time of COVID-19: What IT Vendors are Doing to Protect Communities, Customers and Partners

By Charles King, Pund-IT®

While events of the past month have been surreal by nearly any measure, the appearance of the novel coronavirus and resulting COVID-19 pandemic are not unprecedented. By historical standards, the deadly 1918 influenza pandemic wasn’t all that long ago and resulted from the same H1N1 virus that sparked the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

Not surprisingly, these and other pandemics are being used to provide “lessons learned” for people suffering the continuing events of COVID-19. But I believe other efforts, including projects supported by technology vendors are worth highlighting and provide insights into what people and organizations can do to reduce human suffering and bring COVID-19 to a swifter conclusion.

Let’s consider some of those efforts this week.

Protecting local populations

From a technological perspective, the origination of COVID-19 in Wuhan drew immediate attention to potential impacts on vendors’ supply chains. That’s because along with the largest city in Hubei and the most populous (with 11M+ residents) in Central China, Wuhan is home to massive industrial facilities, including those owned by or partnered with large IT vendors.

As the scope of the disaster became increasingly apparent, the government’s swift efforts to reduce the spread of the disease resulted in manufacturing facilities being shuttered. That impacted the availability of both components and finished products which rippled through the U.S. and other economies. But vendors with ties to the region also stepped-up to provide aid and assistance to COVID-19 prevention and recovery efforts.

For example, Lenovo launched an emergency rescue operation, donating all of the IT equipment necessary to support the Cadian emergency and control center in the new Leishenshan Hospital in Wuhan. A modular field hospital designed to provide care for 1,000+ COVID-19 patients, work began on the project on January 24, 2020, was completed on February 6, 2020 and 1,600 beds were delivered on February 8, 2020.

In addition, Lenovo CEO and chairman Yang Yuanqing donated 10M yuan ($1.44M USD) to the University of Science and Technology to help support coronavirus research. Yang’s and Lenovo’s donations reflect their deep ties to the institutions areas involved. He is an alumnus of the University of Science and Technology and Wuhan is home to the company’s largest and most advanced factory. In addition, for the past three years Lenovo has been one of the largest import/export businesses in the Hubei region.

Other vendors also stepped up with substantial support to aid in the crisis. Dell Technologies, which works with a number of partners in Wuhan, reported that it initially donated 2M yuan ($284,000 USD) to purchase surgical masks, protective clothing and eye covers for local hospitals. The company is also delivering an in-kind IT infrastructure donation valued at 6 million yuan ($853,000 USD) to the Hubei Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in China. The donation will help upgrade the agency’s IT infrastructure, enabling it to respond to the epidemic more effectively and enhancing its ability to provide public health services.

Dell has also set aside $3M USD in funds and in-kind technology donations to communities and front-line organizations working to treat and contain COVID-19 around the world. Plus, the company set up a fundraising page where team members can donate to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Foundation to help in relief efforts. Through the Dell match program, the company will also match every team member donation, dollar for dollar up to $10,000 per employee per year.

COVID-19 and coronavirus research

Lenovo is also working on broader COVID-19 research and analysis projects. On March 3 the company and Intel announced a collaboration with BGI Genomics, a life sciences and genomics company headquartered in Shenzhen. Lenovo and Intel will provide BGI a large high-performance computing (HPC) cluster and related services which the company will use to process high throughput reads from its DNBSEQ-T7 sequencer.

The resulting data will support the investigation of COVID-19 virulence, transmission patterns and host-pathogen interactions which will inform epidemiological and vaccine design studies. Plus, BGI will use the result to optimize its COVID-19 diagnostic kits. The HPC cluster solution will be jointly optimized by Intel and Lenovo to accelerate whole-genome and whole-exome variant-calling workflows by up to 40X via Lenovo’s Genomics Optimization and Scalability Tool (GOAST), the first Intel Select Solution verified for Genomics Analytics.

Other vendors are also working to help speed COVID-19 research. Recently, a blog by Dave Turek, VP of Technical Computing, IBM Cognitive Systems, detailed a Department of Energy project utilizing the 200 petaflop Summit supercomputer at the DOE’s Oak Ridge Lab. Leveraging both IBM POWER9 CPUs and NVIDIA Tensor Core V100 GPUs, the Summit system simulated 8,000 compounds to model which could impact that infection process by binding to the virus’s spike.

As a result, researchers identified 77 small-molecule compounds, such as medications and natural compounds, that showed potential to impair COVID-19’s ability to dock with and infect host cells. That was great news, as was the performance Summit delivered which one researcher noted, “…took us a day or two whereas it would have taken months on a normal computer.”

These aren’t the only projects supported by major IT vendors. For example, The Allen Institute for AI (founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen) announced the COVID-19 Open Data Set, a free resource of over 29,000 scholarly articles about COVID-19 and the coronavirus family of viruses for use by the global research community. The dataset will be updated weekly and is being supported by Microsoft and Facebook.

Final analysis

With luck and hard work, these and other projects will help reduce the impact and suffering caused by COVID-19, but they also point to a central, critical issue regarding pandemics. While some individuals and institutions are using COVID-19 to score political points or level blame on others, global challenges are best addressed and most effectively met by collaboration, not isolationism. As the projects and efforts supported by Lenovo, Dell, IBM, NVIDIA and other IT vendors suggest, when a problem affects everyone, the most effective solutions arise from people working together.

Stay safe and healthy.

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