When Bucks County Community College had to close campuses amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Chris Ebinger saw an opportunity: Unused computers could be used to research a cure for the very virus that caused the shutdown.

The senior network technician, who was already running simulated experiments on computers in his Hatfield, Pa., home for IBM’s World Community Grid, asked his supervisor and faculty members if he could connect some the college’s idle computers to the IBM grid.

Approval from college administrators was immediate.

With the backing of computer science faculty and IT staff, Ebinger connected several dozen computers on the Newtown campus to IBM’s grid in mid-July. As he explains it, the project is part of a global effort to speed up discovery of a cure.

“Let’s say that a certain protein can be exploited and a certain drug can help reduce the damage COVID causes to a person’s respiratory system. That simulation is run through World Community Grid computers and returned to IBM, and they analyze it,” said Ebinger. “This helps treatment tremendously; instead of doctors prescribing a long list of pharmaceuticals and hoping something helps, they have real data that suggests one drug will work better than another so medication can be prescribed more intelligently.”

A total of 35 college computers are connected to IBM’s World Community Grid. Ebinger says the Bucks computers are processing 30 days of research every 24 hours. That means in just seven weeks, the college has sent more than three years’ worth of research to IBM.

Ebinger, who has worked at Bucks for more than 12 years, says other World Community Grid projects include research for AIDS, childhood cancer, and tuberculosis. He added that he hopes the college’s network could eventually contribute to these efforts as well.

“I would love to target the Bucks grid for other projects the World Community Grid has to offer, but right now, I feel COVID-19 is the priority,” said Ebinger. “When we have a vaccine or treatment and can congregate the way we used to, then we can discuss supporting the other projects.”

Meanwhile, he’s hopeful that these efforts will help bring an end to the worldwide pandemic, which has prompted Bucks to keep most students off campus, with courses offered through online and remote instruction this fall.

“I am delighted that a project I joined in my basement and supported in my free time has become such a huge contribution to further science,” he added.

For now, the dozens of computers silently process the data in the quiet confines of a computer lab in the Gateway Center on Bucks County Community College’s Newtown Campus, undisturbed, except for Ebinger’s occasional visit to check on their connections and progress.

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