How computers are helping us fight the Zika virus

Medicine, like every other industry on Earth, has been dramatically changed by technology over the past few decades. Today, fighting an epidemic is as much about mustering computing resources as it is building field hospitals and training nurses.

The recent Zika epidemic, which appears to be linked to an increase in babies born with microcephaly, is no different according to researchers Subhash C. Basak and Ashesh Nandy.

They described in an editorial in the journal Current Computer Aided Drug Design how technology is proving vital in many key areas for researchers trying to come up with a cure.

For starters, computer-assisted methods are helping researchers to design new drugs to combat Zika. Narrowing down large chemical libraries into a handful of most-likely candidates is a labour-intensive task, but computers make that process manageable.

Once an initial set of drugs is found, computational techniques can also hunt for similar ones.


They're also helping design vaccines. Previous research on similar viruses is being used to jumpstart a program of hunting for vaccine candidates through computer-based processes.

Basak and Nandy write that the technology means that testing new candidates "can be pursued within a reasonable time frame and modest funding".

Finally, mathematical methods for analysing how different strains of bird flu emerged have "proved effective", the pair write, in spotting emerging strains of Zika.

"A battery of mathematical sequence descriptors may provide us a quantitative view of the sequences, in whole or in part as required and may aid in the surveillance of emerging strains," they say.

"We sincerely hope that some of the computer-assisted approaches mentioned above will find applications in the containment as well as treatment of this emerging pathogen."