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Technology

Japan fires up development-stage supercomputer for virus fight

Machine will be used to find promising drugs to treat infections beyond Avigan

The Fugaku supercomputer is already eight times more powerful than its predecessor despite only being partially operational. (Photo courtesy of Riken)

TOKYO -- Japan has dispatched its newest supercomputer to help combat the spread of the novel coronavirus even though it is not fully completed, moving up its scheduled launch from next year.

Efforts to find treatments for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, are accelerating around the world. The anti-influenza drug Avigan has received widespread attention, but its effectiveness has yet to be determined.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the nation's most prominent research laboratory, Riken, have decided to use the new supercomputer to research fundamental therapeutics.

Named Fugaku, the computer is the successor to the K computer, which at one point boasted the world's highest calculation speed. Some 130 billion yen ($1.2 billion) in public and private funding has been invested in the device. The machine is being installed at a Riken site in Kobe. Only about one sixth of the computer is operational, but it already has eight times the computational performance of K and is expected to increase further.

Simulations using supercomputers have become an indispensable tool in new drug development. Kyoto University professor Yasushi Okuno will use Fugaku to discover new drug candidates for treating COVID-19 infections.

The research will examine in detail how drugs work on viruses at the molecular level. The goal is to find therapeutic candidates from about 2,000 existing drugs, including those not currently in clinical trials.

"I want to achieve some results in about a month," Okuno said.

The U.S. is also moving ahead with the use of supercomputers to fight the virus. The White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy formed a consortium of industry, government and academic leaders in late March. At present, 30 supercomputers are mobilized, including the world's fastest -- the IBM Summit.

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