Alibaba and Baidu offer AI genomics research to help fight the China coronavirus outbreak
The two tech giants have been quietly researching genetics for years, which might now be put to good use
China has seen an outpouring of donations from tech companies in an effort to help stop the spread of the new coronavirus that originated in Wuhan. Now two of the county’s largest tech companies are mobilizing their genome research capabilities.
Alibaba Cloud, the cloud division of China’s biggest ecommerce company, announced Wednesday that it’s offering AI computing capabilities to scientific research institutions for free. The next day, search giant Baidu joined the battle, announcing that it’s making an algorithm available to scientists.
(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)
The secret to stopping the deadly coronavirus is hidden in its genome. Epidemiologists in China are currently racing to develop a vaccine and other treatments for the novel coronavirus, which has already killed at least 170 people and infected thousands. China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said researchers isolated virus strains for vaccine development, according to a report from state media last week. Similar efforts have been going on in Australia, where scientists have recreated the virus and shared the genome sequence.
While Alibaba is best known for its online shopping and payment platforms, the company’s cloud division has been working in genomics research since 2015. The company provides computing power and data analytics to Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), one of the world’s largest genomics organizations.
The two companies announced this month that they broke a record for completing a high-precision whole personal genome sequencing process within 15 minutes. BGI also received approval to sell two virus detection kits and a sequencing system for the coronavirus, saying it can detect the virus in three hours.
The Global Health Drug Discovery Institute (GHDDI) from Beijing’s Tsinghua University is another Alibaba Cloud partner that has been conducting its own research on finding a cure for the coronavirus.
Baidu has also been quietly working on genomics research. The company said it’s now offering its LinearFold algorithm to coronavirus researchers for free along with AI computing capacity.
Baidu says this algorithm can drastically speed up RNA structure prediction. Similar to the deadly Ebola virus, coronaviruses like Sars, Mers and this new one out of Wuhan are RNA viruses, which mutate faster than DNA viruses.
Other companies have also been giving freebies to scientists to help battle the coronavirus. Chinese scientific journal database Chongqing VIP Information said on its website that it’s making academic papers free during epidemic prevention efforts. Donations of funds and resources have also poured in from tech giants such as Tencent, Xiaomi, Meituan and many more in response to the outbreak.
Correction: We've updated the headline and story to clarify the nature of Baidu's LinearFold algorithm.