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PML supports COVID-19 efforts in the South West and beyond

6 May 2020

Plymouth Marine Laboratory has supported COVID-19 efforts in the South West and beyond through donations of personal protective equipment to local care homes, support to hospitals and computing power.

A total of ten thousand pairs of gloves from the laboratory were donated between West View Care in Bere Alston and Asheborough House in Saltash (which also received a face visor), two organisations with close links to PML. Asheborough House provided excellent care to a PML employee’s father, who sadly passed away earlier this year, providing support to the family, and two partners of PML employees work at West View Care.

Trevor Atkinson, Director at West View Care, said: “We would like to thank PML for their thoughtfulness and generosity in supplying us with a large quantity of boxed nitrile disposable gloves for use in our Care Home. It was a gesture of support and a recognition of our respective roles in looking after our people and their environment.”

Professor Steve Widdicombe, PML Director of Science, said: “These gloves would have been used during our day-to-day research activities, but with these activities greatly reduced under the current circumstances, the gloves became available and this is an excellent use for them. With care homes, in particular, struggling during this very difficult time, PML is delighted to be able to help in some small way to protect vital workers.”

At Exeter Hospital, one of PML’s qPCR machines, which can be used to detect the presence of genetic material, is now being used in COVID-19 testing efforts. At Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, PML PhD student Patrick Downes has volunteered his time in the microbiology laboratory, training as a lab technician to help in times of staff shortages.

At the international level, a project investigating the dynamics of the COVID-19 virus has been given a boost thanks to PML’s significant computing facilities, which have recently been greatly enhanced.

The Massive GPU Cluster for Earth Observation (MAGEO) is an incredibly powerful computer, commissioned by the Natural Environment Research Council’s Earth Observation Data Acquisition and Analysis Service (NEODAAS), hosted at PML and overseen by the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO).

MAGEO’s intended use is to apply artificial intelligence algorithms to Earth Observation data. The system, which is being built by OCF Limited, has yet to be installed into the data centre at PML due to the lockdown and is currently being tested remotely. As part of the testing process, it is being put to use aiding in COVID-19 medical research.

Folding@home is a project that runs computer simulations to aid disease research, currently focused on COVID-19. It can simulate areas of the virus that could be potential targets for drugs and look at how coronaviruses interact with human cells, using software that can run in the background of any computer.
With more than two hundred thousand Graphics Processing Unit cores (one hundred times more than in a modern gaming PC), MAGEO is able to run a huge number of Folding@home simulations. In fact, of more than 2.5 million computers running Folding@home, MAGEO is performing in the top 1%.

Professor Widdicombe said: “This supercomputer will soon be hard at work processing satellite and airborne data as part of PML and NEODAAS’s crucial environmental research, but it’s great to see this powerful technology being put to such an important use in the meantime.”