COVID19: Why We Need Quantum Computers

It is often said that necessity is mother of invention. This statement is very much true for present day industrial growth. We harnessed power of fire to keep us warm, we harnessed power of electrons so that we could use electricity, and we have made great strides in medicinal fields since we want our loved ones to live a healthy and fulfilling life. The ubiquitous problems in our lives are what forces us to take action. Recently whole world has been facing a new problem, the COVID19 pandemic. With 170 affected countries and 13 million victims in the 6 months of its existence, it has become the deadliest pandemic since the Spanish flu of 1918. But the great thing about human nature is that we work the best when the situation demands it the most.

(The New Economy)

If we ask someone is pharmaceutical industry about drug development, they will tell you that its multi-billion dollar business and takes around 10-15 years to get create the drug, get it FDA approved, finish the testing and put it on the market. We still do not have a vaccine for SARS, a coronavirus that emerged in 2001, that can be considered a panacea. So, vaccines are considered the next best thing, but they still take a lot of time to develop (around 5 years). With the advent of High-performance computing, large companies and start-ups are simulating molecules relevant to treatments and vaccines in supercomputers. The caveat to that process is that a supercomputer can simulate only a small finite number of electrons at the quantum mechanical level whereas actual viral proteins consist of thousands of atoms with many more electrons, hence researchers have to find shrewd algorithms and approximation techniques that can bypass this shortcoming. Another valuable method is to use artificial intelligence to filter out molecules available at the RCSB database, understand their protein-protein interactions with the viral protein and to find potential cures. This is a faster technique but also a shot in dark.

At molecular level, quantum mechanics is dominant, so it makes sense to use quantum technologies for simulating the interactions between potential drugs and viruses. The basic principle for drug development is that any physical system tries to lower its energy to become more stable, therefore changes in molecule which produce significant reductions in energy (obtained by solving the Schrödinger equation) will be carried forward to next step. Unfortunately, this is a computationally intractable problem for most systems. Quantum technology has recently been put to use against infectious disease. Quantum dots have been used for early detection of influenza virus and structure-resonant energy transfer induced inactivation of the virus. The latter involves physically fracturing the virus’s structure using microwaves of an appropriate frequency.

Quantum computers as envisioned by Richard Feynman are computational devices that can simulate quantum mechanics and quantum chemistry much more easily than traditional computers. Given the convoluted structure of molecules, it is hard to use present NISQ devices to perform quantum computations from scratch and designing the molecule as if we were god. But that does not stop us from performing these simulations in theory. Present day quasi-quantum processors can still help with analyses of large amounts of data manifesting themselves in form of social graphs (networks) as well as help us in studying the robustness of supply chains against pandemics and the way social information flows throughout the world.

At Conduit, we are developing a computational platform which will allow us to visualize how the coronavirus’s constituent proteins interact inside of cells to build whole viruses. Using this virtual virus assembly process as a starting point, we hope to computationally identify drugs which might get in the way of these interactions and prevent the viruses from forming. Unlike most other initiatives which are only focusing on discovering drugs that target individual proteins of the coronavirus, we are targeting both the individual viral proteins and the interactions among them, opening many new possibilities for what drugs we might find.

(Henry Ford Health System)

Although full-scale quantum computing has not yet arrived, Conduit’s efforts towards combating disease could benefit immensely from quantum computing. Because quantum computers are vastly superior compared to traditional computers when simulating quantum mechanical processes, they could greatly accelerate the study of how quantum mechanics plays into protein-protein interactions and protein-drug interactions. We at Conduit look forward to a future in which we can leverage quantum computing towards fighting viruses and other causative agents of disease.

- Pranav Kairon & Logan Thrasher Collins, Conduit


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