CDC takes over La Crosse area COVID-19 genome sequencing after grant money runs out

One Gundersen cancer researcher tracked COVID-19 in La Crosse from beginning, after grant expired he says important research continues with Omicron variant looming

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – Officials struggle to solve problems when those problems are hidden from plain sight. One researcher in La Crosse leads a team that tracked COVID-19 in the community from the beginning. This research is important now that world researchers discovered the new variant Omicron.

“Omicron may be a fair bit more contagious than Delta variant,” said Dr. Jeff Pothof, the chief quality officer at UW-Health.

Some questions take time to find answers.

“It’s likely that our vaccines won’t perform as well against Omicron,” Pothof said, talking about the questions world health leaders face with the new variant Omicron.

Pothof said health experts do their best to prepare communities without overhyping the headlines. Gundersen Health System researcher Paraic Kenny explained why Omicron has the full attention of world scientists.

“It’s got a total of 32 changes, which is enough to make it quite different,” Kenny said.

As the director of the Kabara Cancer Research Institute, Kenny used the same technology to uncover new cancer treatments and applied it toward tracking COVID-19.

“The viral genome has 29,903 letters long,” Kenny said. “That gives you 29,903 opportunities to see very, very tiny differences between individuals.”

This reveals where strains exist and where they began. Basically, this method creates a road map for researchers. This road map is how researchers in South Africa identified the Omicron variant.

“I’ll give tremendous credit to the scientists in South Africa who did this very, very quickly,” Kenny said.

Understanding where this variant exists helps public health officials understand how different forms of the virus affect people and communities as a whole.

“That will be important because it is so much more contagious, it will let public health officials know that they’re more than likely about to see a spike,” Pothof said.

Kenny’s team received a $100,000 grant for their COVID-19 research. That funding ran out this year. However, the CDC stepped in to help. Kenny said CDC and state lab researchers sequenced 10,000 genomes across the tristate area in the past month.

“I’m very, very confident that regionally we’ve got enough genomes being sequenced even in the absence of our program,” Kenny said.

Kenny said the important thing is there are far more researchers looking beneath the surface. Seeing the problem first, so health leaders can work to find solutions and keep people safe.

Monday, the CDC said in a statement it is continuously monitoring variants and expects to identify Omicron quickly if it emerges in the U.S. UW-Health experts say the people most at risk for contracting Omicron are those who are unvaccinated.

Wisconsin Department of Health Services released a statement saying the best protection against this new variant, or any variant of COVID-19, is to get fully vaccinated and get a booster shot.

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