Argonne science combats COVID-19 on four fronts

At Argonne National Laboratory, several teams of researchers — microbiologists, systems engineers, computer scientists, emergency management experts — have been feverishly working to provide answers to the most critical questions raised by the COVID-19 contagion, from how to create effective antiviral medications to which societal interventions will slow the spread of the disease and save the most lives.

Stephen Streiffer, Argonne National Laboratory’s interim deputy lab director for science, detailed the laboratory's four-pronged approach in Chicago magazine.

1. Know your enemy
President Donald Trump has characterized the fight against the coronavirus as a war with an “invisible enemy.” But seeing the virus — and at Argonne, they can — is crucial to creating drugs to attack it. The lab’s Advanced Photon Source (APS), an electron storage ring a kilometer in diameter, generates the brightest X-rays in the Western Hemisphere — a billion times more intense than those from the machine at your dentist’s office. Essentially functioning as a giant X-ray microscope, it allows researchers to study the virus at the atomic level.

2. Search and destroy
Starting with a coronavirus protein structure derived from the APS, Argonne scientists comb through databases that hold information on some 10 billion molecules. The goal: identifying well-matched inhibitors that could lead to antiviral therapies. For these megasearches, several Argonne supercomputers work in concert with high-performance machines at other national laboratories. With the aid of artificial intelligence, the system can find the needles in the haystack: substances that not only bond with a virus protein but are also safe for humans.

3. Theory of evolution
Using supercomputers, Argonne researchers are tracing the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 via its information-carrying unit: a single strand of RNA containing a gene sequence. Like other single-strand RNA viruses, SARS-CoV-2 rapidly mutates. Researchers are closely monitoring those mutations to understand whether a virus that originated in an animal is continuing to adapt to humans, which proteins are changing in the process, and whether the virus has behaved differently over time, such as becoming deadlier or more contagious.

4. The mod squad
The pandemic has had elected leaders and public health officials clamoring for solid information to guide policy decisions that have widespread life-and-death consequences. That’s where Argonne’s computer models step in to fill the information vacuum and help authorities devise a response. Using the laboratory’s supercomputers, researchers can simulate the virus’s progression over time, dial up potential interventions, and predict the impact of those interventions on the infection rate.

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