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Researchers rely on genomic surveillance to understand variants

Scientists are sequencing coronavirus samples to learn more about its evolution.
Published: Jun. 30, 2021 at 5:26 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 30, 2021 at 6:41 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - As many people begin to return to normal pre-pandemic lifestyle, the fight against COVID-19 rages on inside Wisconsin laboratories.

At the State Lab of Hygiene, data scientists like Dr. Kelsey Florek, are sequencing as many coronavirus samples as possible.

“As cases go down, it becomes harder and harder to source samples to sequence,” said Florek.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, genomic surveillance or genomic sequencing is the process of decoding the genes of a virus to learn more about it.

Florek says this research is crucial to understanding what the variants are out there and how the virus changes over time.

“A big part of the public health initiative now is going to be trying to understand how this pandemic is evolving and what kinds of things we need to expect with this virus going forward,” she said.

At UW-Madison, Dave O’Connor and Thomas Friedrich are conducting similar work. For 25 years, the professors have sequenced viruses like Zika, HIV, and influenza.

O’Connor, a professor of pathology, says the pandemic has shined a spotlight on work like this.

“Never has the interest been as intense as it is now,” said O’Connor. “Never has it been immediately obvious that we need to have this in our own backyard as it is right now.”

Friedrich says on a global scale, variant research like this is crucial.

“As long as there are new infections in the us or anywhere in the world, we think that more variants may also emerge,” said Friedrich. “We don’t know how the COVID virus will evolve in the future.”

The researchers anticipate coronavirus variants will be tracked in the same way the flu variants are.

“I see coronavirus making its way towards something like that, but we still have a ways to go,” said Florek.

Scientists believe the COVID-19 sequencing work will continue for years to come.

“It really is a huge challenge,” said O’Connor. “It’s just great to see how many people are working on it and how many people are working together to try and solve.”

The State Lab of Hygiene in collaboration with Wisconsin Department of Health Services recently launched a COVID-19 Data Dashboard to track the variants. To view, click HERE.

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