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UW-Madison research team releases COVID-19 data that suggest social distancing is working

MADISON — Preliminary data from a UW–Madison research team released April 30 suggests that travel restrictions and social distancing guidelines are working in Wisconsin’s fight against COVID-19.

The data are one of several insights on COVID-19 from Thomas Friedrich, professor of virology at UW-Madison.

Friedrich, an expert on evolution, immunity and pathogenesis of pandemic viruses, is currently working with UW–Madison colleagues and scientists from more than 30 institutions around the world on COVID-19 research.

He and his team at UW–Madison are tracking genetic changes in the coronavirus that occur as it spreads from person to person. The changes are like signatures, the researchers say, that allow scientists to track how the coronavirus spreads through the world.

Comparing samples of the virus from people in Wisconsin to a global database, Friedrich and his colleagues see suggestions that the outbreak in the Milwaukee area differs in some ways from the outbreak in and around Madison. It appears that most infections in Dane County were introduced from Europe, probably from returning travelers, whereas a large amount of Milwaukee County cases are more closely related to viruses from Asia.

The differing genetic signatures in viruses from the Madison and Milwaukee areas, Friedrich says “suggests to us that there’s been some success in the travel restrictions that we’re still under” because it means that the viruses under study were not being passed from person-to-person between the two regions.

Friedrich also shared the following information as research continues:

  • There is still no effective treatment for COVID-19. Some appear promising, but more rigorous testing is needed before we know the effectiveness of each treatment.
  • More than 80 vaccines are being produced and tested. While many are promising, it may be months if not more than a year before we know if they are effective, and longer than that before they are widely available.
  • Coronaviruses do not evolve as quickly as influenza viruses do, so when an effective vaccine is developed it should be effective against all current genetic variants of the virus. This may change if the new coronavirus stays in the human population beyond this year.
  • People exposed to COVID-19 may develop varied levels of immunity to future infection. We do not yet know how long immune protection might last.
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