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How IBM Watson supercomputers are speeding up the search for a COVID-19 vaccine

July 7, 2020, 9:56 PM UTC

As they search for a coronavirus vaccine, medical researchers and companies are looking for shortcuts to treat COVID-19—and they’re getting an assist from artificially intelligent supercomputers.

At the beginning of the pandemic, IBM deployed its Watson A.I. technology around the world to hundreds of universities, companies, and medical organizations such as the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic. They “are all running experiments and creating findings from the supercomputers put together,” Paul Roma, general manager for IBM Watson Health, said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health Virtual conference Tuesday.

While the Mayo Clinic, for one, is studying the use of convalescent plasma—blood antibodies from recovered coronavirus patients—to treat COVID-19, it’s also looking at potential benefits of existing treatments for other diseases, with the help of IBM.

“We know we cannot simply wait for a vaccine,” Gianrico Farrugia, the president and CEO of the Mayo Clinic, said at the virtual event. “We have to work with partners—IBM, others—to be able to create this ecosystem where we can recycle old drugs.”

For example, Farrugia cited Gilead’s experimental drug remdesivir, which was the first treatment to receive emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for use on COVID-19 patients. That drug has been studied for years in trials targeting other viruses such as Ebola. “Remdesivir is not an old drug but it’s not a new one either,” added Farrugia.

The advantage of IBM Watson, said Roma, is the supercomputers’ ability to accelerate the research process. “What would have taken weeks to model and run in a standard and traditional computing environment can literally be done in minutes,” he said. “You can get months’ worth of modeling and work done in the course of a day.”

By partnering with so many institutions pursuing a vaccine, IBM’s technology helps create a sort of network effect with the various data sources, Roma explained: “When you bring it all together, you can actually have the best researchers, you can have a community really engaged in helping people.”