Decoding COVID and solving the software problem

‘The original Human Genome Project required 13 years of work and cost more than $3 billion, now we can sequence the Genome overnight’

I’m often looking for interesting examples of progress, not just in IT but more generally and this one really struck me.

The COVID genome was sequenced early as the first cases were cropping up in Wuhan, China — by Yong-Zhen Zhang and this sequence data was shared with the world by colleague Edward Holmes. I’ve included a link to the full article in the NY Times by John Gertner, which is well worth a read as there are some fascinating observations in it, but I wanted to just share a couple of paragraphs here

“Once the sequence was in the public realm, Moderna, an obscure biotech company in Cambridge, Mass., immediately began working with the National Institutes of Health on a plan,” Jon Gertner wrote. “They never had the virus on site at all; they really just used the sequence, and they viewed it as a software problem” Francis deSouza, the chief executive of Illumina, which makes the sequencer that Zhang used, told me with some amazement last summer, six months before the Moderna vaccine received an emergency-use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration.”

The virus’s code also set the testing industry into motion. Only by analyzing characteristic aspects of the virus’s genetic sequence could scientists create kits for the devices known as P.C.R. machines, which for decades have used genetic information to formulate fast diagnostic tests. 

This story isn’t just about speed, although that’s an amazing part of it, it’s about data and how we can make that data available as quickly as possible to the people that need it. The genome was sequenced overnight, this sequence data was copied to a web-site and was then instantly available to any researcher that might be able to help to come up with a treatment, a vaccine or even the tests needed to rapidly identify its existence.

I love this quote “They never had the virus on site at all; they really just used the sequence, and they viewed it as a software problem,”. When we think about a ‘Digital twin’ I’m sure many of you think about a product, a car, an engine, something physical, had you ever considered that it could be a virus?

How much of what we do in our businesses are actually just software problems, does this give us a glimpse into the possibilities that approaches such as AI could offer us and is AI better placed to solve these software problems than a human?

It also has to make us think about the future for our businesses. From those early days of Genomics where costs were measured in billions and time in years, to today where companies such as 23andMe have built a business from genomics and will sequence your genome in just a few days for less than $199.

I often think about what this means for companies like NetApp, if this is the progress that the world is making then what will our role be in this future, what will we need to become? sure there’s still an infrastructure requirement here, our storage arrays deal with the data coming off the sequencers for companies that provide genome sequencing, our cloud based storage technologies are also providing the performance neccessary for those that are using cloud resources as part of their sequencing efforts. It’s our broader strategy of helping companies to build data fabrics which is where additional value comes into play, and how quickly we can continue to bring new features and capabilities to life as a part of this.

But more importantly to me is how companies like ourselves can help to democratise new technologies and capabilities. You’ll always have the early adopters, those companies that can attract the highest levels of skills and talent and are prepared to experiment with new technologies and ideas to see if they can find exciting new possibilities. What NetApp and others in our industry need to do is spot the ones that have potential and then find ways to make these accessible to a much broader community. We’re probably much further down this path than you may realise.

There will always be a need for speed, efficiency, protection and encryption when creating the data that your businesses need, whether that data is on-premises or in the cloud, but that’s simply table stakes. It’s now about ensuring you can get that data to right people in the right place at the right time, quickly, efficiently, securely and then give them the possiblity to easily use new technologies to do something incredible with it.

Solve this and who knows where your next innovation may come from.

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