Amazon, Microsoft launch initiatives to accelerate COVID-19 research and testing

As COVID-19 continues to spread, with 209,000 confirmed cases and close to 9,000 deaths globally, technology giants are stepping up to accelerate research and potential treatments.

Among them, Amazon and Microsoft are rolling out separate initiatives to support COVID-19 diagnostics and research.

On Sunday, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy also announced the development of the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium in partnership with IBM and the Energy Department national laboratories. The initiative will enable researchers to have access to supercomputers to help speed the discovery of vaccines and drugs. Alphabet's Google Cloud, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft, and many universities also are participating.

As part of its separate initiative, AWS announced Friday it is setting aside an initial $20 million toward the development of diagnostics, including a more accurate, faster coronavirus test.

AWS is launching the Diagnostic Development Initiative to support customers who are working to bring better, more accurate diagnostic solutions to market faster and to promote better collaboration across organizations. 

With the assistance of AWS, customers can accelerate diagnostic research, innovation and development to speed our collective understanding and detection of COVID-19 and other innovate diagnostic solutions to mitigate future infectious disease outbreaks, Teresa Carlson, vice president of worldwide public sector at AWS, wrote in a blog post.

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The program will be open to accredited research institutions and private entities that are using AWS to support research-oriented workloads for the development of point-of-care diagnostics.

The initiative will have an outside technical advisory group consisting of leading scientists, global health policy experts and thought leaders in the field of infectious disease diagnostics. 

"The world needs more and more private sector innovation to combat this pandemic," said Steve Davis, a member of the World Health Organization's Digital Health Technical Advisory Group and a member of the AWS Diagnostic Development Initiative’s technical advisory group.

"Amazon’s commitments and participation are very welcome, particularly since the lack of significant next-generation diagnostic tools remains a large gap in most health systems. A platform to link research, digital capabilities, and new products to customers globally is an exciting venture," he said.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is teaming up with Adaptive Biotechnologies Corp. to lead an effort to better understand how the human immune system responds to the virus.

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Decoding COVID-19 immune response, or why some patients become critically ill while others are asymptomatic, will help advance solutions to diagnose, treat and prevent the disease, the company said in release.

The research data will be made freely available to any researcher, public health official or organization around the world via an open data access portal.

"Immune response data may enable detection of the virus in infected people not showing symptoms and improve triaging of newly diagnosed patients, potentially solving two of the challenges we are facing in the current diagnostic paradigm," said Chad Robins, CEO and co-founder of Adaptive Biotechnologies. 

Starting next month, Adaptive Biotechnologies will start a virtual clinical study by collecting anonymous blood samples using a LabCorp-enabled mobile phlebotomy service from people diagnosed with or recovered from COVID-19

Immune cell receptors from the blood samples will be sequenced using Illumina platform technology. Microsoft will use its Azure cloud and machine learning technologies to improve the accuracy of the immune response signature and update it online in real time as more trial samples are sequenced from the study, the companies said.

“The solution to COVID-19 is not likely going to come from one person, one company or one country. This is a global issue, and it will be a global effort to solve it,” said Peter Lee, corporate vice president for artificial intelligence and research at Microsoft.

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The companies are looking for other institutions and research groups to contribute blood samples to the open data initiative. Collaborators interested in contributing blood samples can direct inquiries to [email protected].

Google's parent company Alphabet also has been working to use its technology to help with coronavirus response. Verily Life Sciences, Google's sister company, developed a COVID-19 risk screening website that points people to testing locations in two San Francisco Bay Area counties.

Last week, President Donald Trump promoted the website as facilitating nationwide testing for coronavirus. The screening website, part of Verily's Project Baseline, focuses on two California counties, far short of the wide-ranging capabilities administration officials described.

On the site, Verily posted, "We are working to rapidly expand testing in every way that we can; please check back soon as we add more testing sites and may expand eligibility criteria."