Supercomputers To The Rescue!

With high performance computing tools, Singapore is bolstering its response to emerging threats such as infectious diseases and climate change.

AsianScientist (Mar. 25, 2022) – As the world enters year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, it continues to face the threat of other infectious diseases as well as the multifaceted crisis of climate change. At first glance, the two may sound like important yet disparate challenges. Deeper investigations, however, have increasingly revealed that human health and environmental health are heavily entangled.

For instance, several contagious diseases such as hepatitis A and parasitic infections spread easily in areas with poor sanitation, while air pollution exposure is associated with lung and cardiovascular disorders. Meanwhile, ecosystem destruction and habitat loss can degrade the ability of the environment to control outbreaks, potentially leading to disease-causing agents spilling over from animals to humans.

Losing sight of any of these looming threats could spell grave disaster both in local and global contexts. To understand the intricacies of these emerging hazards, supercomputers are vital tools that could make a big difference to reverse this ominous narrative in Singapore and the world.

The battle against infectious diseases

Singapore has faced a surge in COVID-19 cases in the past year, underlining the danger of infectious diseases in the tropical nation. To help the country fight the current pandemic and future outbreaks, scientists have harnessed the power of high performance computing (HPC) in deciphering disease characteristics and enabling better healthcare interventions.

Keeping a close eye on these emerging threats, the Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC) at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) closely collaborates with the National Supercomputing Centre (NSCC) Singapore, whose resources include the petascale ASPIRE 1 HPC system. ASPIRE 1 carries 1,288 central processing unit (CPU) nodes and accelerator nodes with NVIDIA K40 graphical processing units (GPUs), capable of performing the high-speed and complex calculations needed to model the spread of the coronavirus.

As droplet behavior may vary across climate conditions, IHPC researchers examined the role of coughing in COVID-19 transmission, modeling how far virus droplets can travel in an outdoor tropical environment. Reporting in the journal Physics of Fluids, they found that small-droplet dispersal is “relatively insensitive” to humidity.

On the contrary, large droplets are a force to be reckoned with, traveling farther distances and posing a serious infective threat. By better understanding infection routes, scientists and their supercomputers are supporting government agencies in the development of data-driven solutions to reduce the risks of virus transmission.

Besides simulating disease transmission, HPC solutions have also revolutionized COVID-19 diagnosis. IHPC partnered with Tan Tock Seng Hospital, a large public hospital in Singapore, to leverage HPC-powered artificial intelligence (AI) to detect signs of pneumonia from chest X-ray scans. By accelerating the hospital’s screening process, AI-based image analysis helps doctors identify urgent cases and deliver interventions much earlier. Moving forward, IHPC is working with other local hospitals to apply AI technologies for the detection of other diseases, ushering in a new dawn in digital healthcare.

“As the world becomes more digitalized and interconnected, HPC plays a crucial role in powering societies to overcome threats and create opportunities,” said Dr. Lim Keng Hu, IHPC Executive Director, in an interview with Supercomputing Asia. “HPC enables advanced modeling and AI solutions to be developed, which could positively impact not only healthcare, but also diverse areas including food, security, urban solutions and climate change.”

Just as how the coronavirus can evolve into separate variants, another rampant pathogen known to come in several forms is the dengue virus. Strikingly, researchers at the Environmental Health Institute Singapore (EHI), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and the National University of Singapore (NUS) discovered that the dengue virus type 2’s Indian subcontinent lineage is maturing into a new genotype.

The researchers used standalone high-performance desktops and NSCC HPC resources to deftly analyze virus dispersal and genetic characterization, detailing the dengue virus’ evolution in Scientific Reports. These valuable insights could improve the mitigation of dengue and potentially other infectious diseases as well.

“Unlike conventional approaches, current epidemiological research utilizes HPC to gain deeper insights into disease patterns, including the contribution of potential genetic and environmental risk factors,” said Hapuarachchige Chanditha Hapuarachchi, study co-author and a senior scientist at EHI. “As big data analytics is becoming a common practice in modeling and genomics, supercomputers are indispensable to this field.”

Tim Hornyak is a Canadian writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who has worked in journalism for more than 20 years. He has written extensively about travel, food, technology, science, culture and business in Japan, as well as Japanese inventors, roboticists and Nobel Prize-winning scientists. He is the author of Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots and has contributed to several Lonely Planet travel guidebooks. He has lived in Tokyo for more than 15 years.

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