As the global coronavirus pandemic continues, the world is searching for new measures that will minimize the risk of infection while allowing essential institutions such as hospitals, government, and schools to continue to function.
In any public health plan for public spaces, two issues that must be addressed are countermeasures against viruses in the air and viruses on surfaces that are touched by many people. Traditional disinfection methods involve using chlorine-based cleansers or alcohol which are either sprayed or applied by hand. This approach, however, is not only labor intensive and of limited effectiveness, it also exposes cleaning staff to a greater risk of infection. Solutions are needed as we face this “new normal” and several innovators have stepped forward with some new ideas.
Crunching Numbers to Beat the Virus
The first step in any kind of research is creating models, and computers have been an invaluable tool in this process. Accurately simulating the motion of thousands of droplets through the air, however, has been beyond the capabilities of most available computers. To answer the need for more computational power, Japan’s Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, or RIKEN, working in collaboration with Fujitsu, has developed the supercomputer Fugaku, currently the most powerful in the world.
Thankfully, it went into operation in 2020, just in time to be put to use in combatting the fast-growing COVID-19 crisis.
Some of the first questions that Fugaku was tasked with answering involved the spread of the coronavirus through the air. By itself, the virus does not appear to be airborne, rather it travels inside droplets of fluid on the air, such as those released when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Fugaku was capable of running detailed simulations of how fluid particles can move through the air, allowing researchers to assess the risk levels not only from coughing, but also when speaking or singing. The simulations also provided convincing evidence that masks have a significant effect on reducing exposure, especially when worn by people who are infected. These findings were a tremendous help to public health authorities in providing safety guidelines that were clear, effective, and backed by evidence.