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Gundersen researchers sequence genomes of COVID-19, results help with tracking and possibly mitigating spread

Gundersen researchers sequence genomes of COVID-19, results help with tracking and possibly mitigating spread

Just two weeks after developing a test for COVID-19, Gundersen Medical Foundation researchers have successfully sequenced the complete viral genomes of the virus, an achievement that will help researchers understand its origins and evolution during spread.

The Gundersen Medical Foundation cancer research team, directed by Dr. Paraic Kenny, has been utilizing the Foundation’s cancer genome sequencing equipment to examine COVID-19 infections in La Crosse County patients and how they correlate with the global pandemic.

To conduct the research, Kenny and his team secured Institutional Review Board approval to use specimens, remaining after the conducting of standard COVID-19 testing, from six of the La Crosse County’s earliest cases of the virus.

Paraic Kenny

Paraic Kenny

“At the most basic level, the virus makes occasional ‘spelling mistakes’ when it copies its genome during infection and these mutations are faithfully carried in all subsequent infections by that particular virus,” Kenny says. “By sequencing the whole viral genome, we have been able to map the different COVID-19 strains currently in La Crosse County. This allows us to go far beyond positive and negative test results to better understand how the virus spreads within our community and health-care system.”

Through its local lab, Kenny’s research team has been able to document the independent appearance of COVID-19 strains in the Coulee Region, discovering several of the viruses sequenced share “molecular fingerprints” with viruses that traveled directly from China to Washington state, as well as strains that circulated about a month ago in France and one sub-strain present in community spread.

The creation of the COVID-19 test at the Gundersen Medical Foundation’s Microbiology Research Laboratory has reduced the wait time for results from days to just hours, and the genome sequencing capability will assist the La Crosse County Health Department and the Gundersen infectious disease team in quickly profiling new cases.

“The project will help us understand patterns of cluster seeding and spread in the community,” Kenny says. “By tracking and mapping the sources of individual sub-strain infections, we can quickly understand weak points leading to health-care worker infection to try to mitigate them and prevent transmission to other staff and patients.”

“By sequencing the whole viral genome, we have been able to map the different COVID-19 strains currently in La Crosse County. This allows us to go far beyond positive and negative test results to better understand how the virus spreads within our community and health-care system.” Dr. Paraic Kenny, Gundersen Medical Foundation cancer research team

"By sequencing the whole viral genome, we have been able to map the different COVID-19 strains currently in La Crosse County. This allows us to go far beyond positive and negative test results to better understand how the virus spreads within our community and health-care system."

Dr. Paraic Kenny, Gundersen Medical Foundation cancer research team

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