UW-Madison lab sequencing COVID-19 variants found in Wisconsin

Posted at 10:09 PM, Feb 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-09 23:09:37-05

MILWAUKEE — As new variants of the COVID-19 virus are found across the country and here in Wisconsin, researchers at the University of Wisconsin - Madison are tracking them.

They call it sequencing, and they are studying the makeup of each strain.

“The virus genome has 30,000 letters in it. That’s what makes up the viral genome. Every time the virus infects a couple of people, there’s a new letter that’s put into that virus,” says Associate Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Shelby O’Connor.

The work is being done in U-W Madison’s AIDS Vaccine Research Laboratory and started back with the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in February of 2020.

“We just need to know what is circulating around us so we can be as well prepared as we can to deal with it,” says O’Connor.

Sequencing the virus not only allows researchers to identify the more contagious variants of COVID-19 like those originating in South Africa and the U.K. But it also has benefits for the ongoing battle against the virus during the pandemic.

O’Connor says sequencing helps in developing diagnostic testing to see who has the virus. It also helps fine-tune therapeutics and interventions for patients who are sick. Ultimately it can help develop vaccines that elicit an immune response from the body.

According to the state, Wisconsin only sequences about 1 percent to 5 percent of confirmed cases of the virus. Where the UW Madison lab is located in the capital city, they are on the high end at 5 percent. O’Connor says other countries are doing a better job of this and sequencing 10 percent or more.

There are three labs across the state that sequence the COVID-19 Virus, including the Milwaukee Health Department. A second case of the more contagious “U.K. variant” of COVID-19 was confirmed in Waukesha County Tuesday.

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