Mississippi: Modeling A Battle Plan For COVID-19

Scientists at Vicksburg’s ERDC have been deploying Supercomputers to develop models illustrating how the coronavirus spreads.

By the BF Staff
From the September/October 2020 Issue

The city of Vicksburg, MS always has been known for its military history, stately historic homes and museums. Now, thanks to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, this city on the Mississippi River has built a global reputation for its cutting-edge research at the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC).

Vicksburg, MS
(Photo: Mississippi Development Authority)

According to the ERDC website, one of the center’s missions is to help various groups across the country with research and development.

“As one of the most diverse engineering and scientific research organizations in the world, ERDC conducts research and development in support of the U.S. soldier, military installations and the Corps of Engineers’ civil works mission, as well as for other federal agencies, state and municipal authorities and with U.S. industries through innovative work agreements.”

Most recently, scientists at ERDC have been working to fight COVID-19 by developing models illustrating how the disease spreads and by using supercomputers for research.

ERDC was established Oct. 1, 1998, and has 2,100 federal employees and contractors who manage an annual research program of more than $1 billion. ERDC’s headquarters are in Vicksburg, but the program has seven laboratories in three other states: Illinois, New Hampshire and Virginia.

ERDC engineers and scientists focus on five primary areas: warfighter support, installations, environment, water resources and information technology. In addition, ERDC manages five major Department of Defense Supercomputer Resource Centers, including one in Vicksburg. These supercomputers are among the most powerful and fastest in the world with a capability of 3.5 quadrillion calculations per second.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and ERDC are Vicksburg’s largest employer and one of the most significant sources of economic wellbeing for our community,” said Pablo Diaz, president and CEO of the Vicksburg Warren County Chamber of Commerce. “The importance of having a multidisciplinary, world-class R&D center in the state of Mississippi, located right in the middle of Vicksburg, is not to be understated.

“ERDC is a magnet for some of the brightest and most talented engineers in the world, and we are proud that they call Mississippi and Vicksburg home.”

Diaz said Vicksburg officials currently are working with ERDC to open the Senator Thad Cochran Mississippi Center for Innovation and Technology (MCITy), which is under construction in downtown Vicksburg.

The center will be a state-of-the-art facility that brings together the technology transfer office of ERDC, higher education opportunities, workforce development, technology-based entrepreneurship programming and economic development.

“The goal is to spur knowledge and technology transfer from ERDC to the marketplace and vice versa,” Diaz said. “MCITy seeks to attract small- and medium-size companies to locate in Mississippi, and procure opportunities and business growth with and through ERDC and the Corps of Engineers.”

Scientists at ERDC’s Environmental Laboratory are applying their skills to help curtail COVID-19 by developing various models related to the virus. One of these shows how the virus spreads and was shown on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Members of the Modelling and Simulation Team developed the ERDC Susceptible Exposed Infected Recovered—or SEIR—model. It predicts the disease’s spread in the U.S. and provides information that supports planning response actions. The ERDC-SEIR model results have been provided to federal, state and local partners to help the nation’s leaders make informed decisions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The inclusion of the SEIR model on the CDC website was the first time a model developed and maintained by the Department of Defense has been included in the CDC ensemble.

“It’s the most comprehensive modeling platform we’re working on,” said Dr. Brandon Lafferty, a researcher from the ERDC Environmental Laboratory. “It’s being used by USACE as a planning tool for building (alternate care facilities), and it provides estimates as to how many infected patients states and counties will have.

“The model takes the reported number of active cases in a county’s or state’s geographic area, then uses a parameter optimization process, similar to the way models for weather forecasting are parameterized,” Lafferty added. “That data is fed into ordinary differential equations to provide predictions for active COVID-19 infections for the future.”

He said one major question scientists are trying to answer by using the model is where and when the peaks in the outbreak will occur so states and their partners can make decisions about alternate care facilities.

Another way that ERDC is helping with COVID-19 is through the Department of Defense High Performance Computing Modernization Program. Managed in Vicksburg, this initiative provides supercomputer power and computational science to Defense. These supercomputers are being used for such studies as modeling the movement of how droplets travel through an aircraft and conducting virtual screenings of vaccine possibilities.

Vicksburg, MS
The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC, above) in Vicksburg, MS helps solve our nation’s most challenging problems in civil and military engineering, geospatial sciences, water resources and environmental sciences. The ERDC has been using supercomputers to model the spread of COVID-19. (Photo: Mississippi Development Authority)

Researchers are using the computers to determine how to safely airlift passengers with COVID-19 with minimal risk to airplane crews and medical attendants.

Scientists with ERDC’s supercomputer program are working with the U.S. Army Medical Command and the Walter Reed Army Research Institute to examine target proteins and their chemistry more quickly.

Prior to the supercomputer program’s involvement, only 2 million vaccine options could be considered over a three-week period. Now, the goal is to examine 40 million target compounds in the same time frame.

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