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UW-Madison SARS-CoV-2 research maps how virus spreads, evolves

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MADISON (WKOW) — As the coronavirus continues to mutate and new variants form, two UW-Madison research labs are using genome sequencing of Sars-CoV-2. The labs are creating variant trees with patient samples from UW Health to map how the virus spreads and evolves.

Dr. Thomas Friedrich, a professor of virology at UW-Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine, says his lab focuses on understanding how viruses that cause pandemics overcome evolutionary barriers to get transmitted.

“This tree sort of help[s] us track the way that we can understand the spread and evolution of the virus and also kind of flag for us things that we might want to pay closer attention to,” Dr. Friedrich said.

His lab joins the research of a “global consortium of scientists” who are doing similar research and building a giant family tree of viruses from around the world. Dr. Friedrich’s lab along with his colleague Dr. David O’Connor’s lab at UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health, the Wisconsin State Laboratory and a couple other labs across the state are all working together to provide comprehensive state coverage.

This combined research effort is used to answer developing COVID-19 questions.

“Has anybody else seen viruses like this? You know, are they, where else in the world do viruses like this exists? So, what does that tell us about you know where this infection might be coming from and whether we might expect this this strain to be transmitted more in our area,” said Dr. Friedrich.

Dr. Friedrich’s research goal is to be aware of the strains that appear in Wisconsin and how to best handle the spread. He says while there are many unknowns, it is the same process that gave rise to the current variants of concern.

“The more infections there are of people, the more mutations the virus can make and the more mutations it makes, the greater the number of chances, it has to randomly stumble upon a combination of mutations that will make it fitter,” said Dr. Friedrich. “That fitness may mean that it’s even better at infecting people.”

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