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UW-Madison professor tracks the origin of coronavirus cases

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MADISON, Wis.– A team of experts at University of Wisconsin-Madison is tracking the spread of the coronavirus and finding the origin of cases in Wisconsin.

By using tests from infected patients, UW-Madison Professor Dr. Thomas Friedrich is tracking the genetic sequences of the coronavirus, which provides scientists with a better understanding of the virus.

“If you can identify how many (outbreaks) there are and where the virus is spreading, how it’s getting around, then hopefully it will help us understand how to stop it,” Friedrich said.

Friedrich said they put that information in a database shared with scientists around the world, which allows to compare the genetic sequences of cases everywhere.

“What it allows us and other scientists to do is kind of place the Wisconsin outbreaks in a global context,” Friedrich said.

Studies show that outbreaks in Madison are similar to cases seen in Europe, according to Friedrich.

“People probably traveled to Europe, became infected over there and came back here,” Friedrich said. “In some cases, maybe they passed the infection on and in other cases they didn’t. We can see some evidence for that in the sequences, also.”

Dane County’s first recorded case of coronavirus was a person who tested positive after traveling to China. Friedrich said the sequence from that case is unique and likely didn’t cause community spread.

Scientists are studying how the virus mutates from person to person, which Friedrich said isn’t as scary as it sounds.

“All these things really are for us are genetic signatures of viruses that are a little different from each other,” Friedrich said. “They’re like a typo in the instructions for how to make new viruses.”

The information from the sequences will help answer questions about how to slow the spread.

“This is essentially backward looking. What we are able to do is kind of reconstruct how we got to be in the state we are in, and that allows us to do some forecasting in the future, but that can be difficult,” Friedrich said.

Friedrich said this information could help scientists learn more about what type of virus will be needed to give people immunity to the virus.

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