Critical Update: National Labs Pivoted to Help Fight COVID-19. Here's How.

Maksim Kabakou/

Federal insiders offer a glimpse of how the global health care crisis sparked a new wave of multi-sector collaboration.

As governments of all sizes try to respond to the novel coronavirus pandemic, scientists and researchers across all sectors are stepping up to harness advanced technologies—and ignite new networks of collaboration—in the global fight against COVID-19. 

“There hasn't been a time since World War II, in which you had this intensity of the federal footprint, academia and the private sector, much of which are normally competitors, all working together on a national and a global crisis,” the Energy Department’s Undersecretary for Science Paul Dabbar said in Nextgov’s latest episode of Critical Update.

Dabbar is one of several federal officials who worked directly with technology companies to launch the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, which grants researchers free compute time on cutting-edge resources from participating national laboratories, agencies, companies and academic institutions to help put an end to the global health emergency. And tech giant IBM played a critical role in the consortium’s creation. Together with Dabbar, Director of IBM Research Dario Gil offered a look into how it came to be, the progress made so far and the effects felt by those involved.

“I have a little bit of a running joke every time we all meet as a board,” Gil explained, noting that the consortium involves multiple industry competitors. “For the participants this is their favorite time of the week, right? Because we all get to spend an hour together not thinking about competing with one another, but seeing how we can do things together, right, in the context of something that we know is so important.”

While several national laboratories have allocated their resources to support the consortium’s work, lab insiders are also conducting their own critical research to better understand—and ultimately stop—COVID-19. Nextgov also explores how two national labs pivoted their ongoing efforts in January and applied new and not-so-new techniques aimed at curbing the pandemic.

From Sandia National Laboratories, biochemist Joe Schoeniger and virologist Oscar Negrete detailed how they are tapping into advanced gene sequencing tools to genetically engineer antiviral countermeasures to stop COVID-19 and future outbreaks of other medical threats. And at Argonne National Lab, Associate Laboratory Director for Computing, Environment and Life Sciences Rick Stevens provided a peek into several models and simulations being run on some of America’s top supercomputing systems to shed more light on the novel coronavirus. “I'm pretty optimistic actually, that we'll get through it,” Stevens said. “And maybe in the process, we'll learn some new things about how to use these machines and how to, you know, work together.”