As the coronavirus continues to spread, dangerously teetering on the edge of a pandemic, researchers and doctors are already assessing lessons learned and planning for the next disease outbreak — and there will be a next outbreak. Quantum computers could be the most powerful tool ever devised against the spread of that next disease.
Here are a few ways that a quantum computer could help scientists and emergency personnel in the event of a future health crisis.
Prediction: Fighting an Epidemic Before It Happens
Although it may not seem so, epidemics don’t just manifest out of nowhere. Typically, there are signs of a pending disease outbreak. However, those signs might be so subtle and the variables that might tip epidemiologists off about the disease are so many, that even classical supercomputers might struggle to predict a potential outbreak.
Quantum scientists, however, believe that quantum computers give researchers the data-crunching power to predict disease spread. This study, by University of Alabama researcher, Brian C. Britt, shows that quantum computation can assess viral spread in networks, whether that’s a viral video moving through social media, or the next coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak beginning its first steps toward becoming an epidemic.
Precision Medicine: Designing an Immediate Drug Response
Several quantum start-ups are already developing software that they say will use the massive computational power of quantum computing to create treatments for a variety of conditions. It’s not too far of a leap to believe that the power and the speed of quantum computers could be leveraged to fight a fast-developing epidemic, like coronavirus.
Ideally, epidemiologists would give the drug designers an immediate warning of a disease outbreak and as much data on the condition as possible. The designers would take over from there.
Researchers suggest that current hybrid quantum-classical approaches mean we’re not too far away from this right now, but, as the technology develops, we might expect that, instead of months or years it now takes to design a vaccination or treatment for an epidemic, it may only take weeks, or even days.
Logistics: The Traveling Vaccination Problem
Another problem that quantum algorithms are suited to investigate is the traveling salesperson problem. This is a common thought experiment for quantum researchers that explores the idea of a salesperson who is trying to figure out how to make sales stops in several cities as efficiently as possible. And every time a new city is added to the salespersons’s list, that complexity increases exponentially. It turns out that quantum computers are theoretically well suited for solving that task, possibly more so than classical computers.
What does managing a mobile sales staff have to do with defending against a pandemic?
In a future epidemic, a quantum computer could pass out vaccines to healthcare providers in the most efficient manner possible, something that would save precious time and a way to curb the spread of the disease.
This type of coordination would be absolutely essential for a country such as China, which is particularly hard-hit by coronavirus. Because China has many large cities spread around the vast nation, getting the medicine in the hands of the right people at the right time would save untold number of lives.
Emergency Response: Positioning Responders Where They’re Needed Most
Similar to the traveling vaccination salesman, quantum computers could also be used to position the right resources and the right emergency personnel to help thwart the spread of a disease. Many areas under quarantine, for example, need special considerations — emergency food, water, and fuel. Jugging these supply concerns is a logistical nightmare. A quantum computer might be suited to classifying those supplies and delivering them to the right places.
Finally, the best weapon against an epidemic is to stop them before they start, quantum computers could constantly monitor data to diminish any flare-ups. From analyzing health statistics to using natural language processing to parse social media messages for clues of disease outbreaks, quantum computers may make a vigilant sentry against the next killer pandemic.