Gundersen’s successful COVID-19 genome sequencing effort ahead of 36 other states

Genome sequencing research vital in understanding how COVID-19 spreads
Health Science Center

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – Cancer researchers at Gundersen Health System in La Crosse are using their expertise to help local officials understand COVID-19. Their efforts are identifying where specific cases came from and how they spread.

“It’s really really shaken up what we do on a day to day basis.”

His experience is in cancer research. Like the rest of us, Dr. Paraic Kenny of Gundersen Health System had to embrace change.

“We still have four or five people doing full-time cancer research all the time,” Kenny said. “We have taken a couple of Ph.D. level researchers and put them directly on working with COVID-19.”

His research normally provides hope to those with complicated cancers, but that hope has transitioned to communities dealing with COVID-19.

“We were the 15th institution around the country to bring this online,” he said.

It’s called genome sequencing. Kenny said the COVID-19 virus genome is made up of nearly 30,000 letters. Those letters are instructions on how to make the virus.

The virus copies itself in one infected person before it infects someone else. Sometimes, the virus makes mistakes with those letters. Those “spelling errors” are useful to researchers tracking the virus.

“It allows us to build up family trees of this virus,” Kenny said. “We can really track in pretty fine detail the transmission chains of this virus.”

Allamakee County is an example of why research like this is so important.

“…one introduction to our region which we know came from the New York area,” Kenny said. “It has now spread out to 16 cases that we have been able to sequence here at Gundersen.”

Coronavirus research

Gundersen Health System researchers’ genome sequencing is beneficial in understanding how to to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Allamakee County has a meatpacking plant where numerous cases of COVID-19 have been reported. Testing is not at a level to understand the full scale of the problem. When the virus unknowingly spreads, health officials are powerless to stop it.

“The fear is in a situation like this, you are really looking at the tip of an iceberg,” Kenny said.

Gundersen has sequenced more than 50 virus genomes from patients in the region. Kenny said they have found 17 different introductions to the La Crosse area. They have sequenced more cases than 36 individual states.

Kenny said their research shows the majority of viruses brought to the area stop spreading within a family’s home.

“When you can see that the virus arrives and it doesn’t go any farther, that’s really really good evidence that social distancing is working,” he said.

That is why health officials are screaming for more testing.

“All of us want to get the economy started again,” Kenny said. “But we definitely don’t want to be in a situation where it’s one step forward and two steps back, not to mind one step forward and five or six steps back.”

In March, Gundersen Medical Foundation’s microbiology research laboratory developed a test for COVID-19. It’s test reduced the wait time for test results from days to hours.