The Joint European Disruptive Initiative (JEDI) has launched a competition with up to €2 million in prizes for scientific teams that can screen molecules to block the action of COVID-19 on the human body. The competition will involve up to a hundred teams, each of which will be expected to come up with a billion molecules in the hunt for a COVID-19 therapeutic. JEDI has appointed a high-profile scientific committee to run the ‘Billion Molecules against COVID-19’ challenge, including Babak Falsafi and Bryan Ford from EPFL’s School of Computer and Communication Sciences.

JEDI was conceived to function as a moonshot organization oriented toward the future, but the COVID-19 challenge has brought it to the present crisis facing humanity. Although research on COVID-19 is already a crowded field with many concerted efforts by supercomputing centers worldwide, the JEDI initiative adds value by focusing on billions of molecular compounds instead of individual molecules such as hydroxychloroquine.

The competition gets underway on May 1. It will be conducted in three phases. In the first phase, which will last for 33 days, teams will test molecules against SARS-CoV-2 by computational screening of enormous libraries against high-resolution protein structures using supercomputing and potentially machine learning. Cross-correlation of results is expected to lead to a “high potential” compound list that can be fast-tracked for clinical testing. Prize money of €250,000 will be awarded to the top team that uses three independent computational methods and selects 10,000 promising molecules from a library of more than a billion.

In Stage 2, teams will identify compounds that lead to 99% viral suppression. The team or consortium that demonstrates the highest suppression of viral replication using molecules shortlisted in Stage 1 will receive €500,000, while a further €500,000 will be awarded to the team that can identify a compound having the best binding affinity with COVID-19.

Stage 3, which will be conducted concurrently with Stages 1 and 2, offers a cash prize of €500,000 to any team that isolates a molecule for immediate use against COVID-19.

The scientific committee for the ‘Billion Molecules against COVID-19’ challenge is representative of Europe’s top scientists and academics. EPFL is honored by the presence of Babak Falsafi and Bryan Ford on the committee. Other distinguished members include Nobel Laureate Sir Peter Ratcliffe, former CEO of INRA Dr. Marion Guillou, and leading epidemiologist Adolfo Garcia-Sastre.