UW-Madison research points to effectiveness of travel restrictions, social distancing in slowing COVID-19 spread


MADISON — Preliminary data from a UW–Madison research team suggests that travel restrictions and social distancing guidelines are working in Wisconsin.

Thomas Friedrich

That was just one of the insights on COVID-19 from UW–Madison expert Thomas Friedrich, professor of virology in the School of Veterinary Medicine. Friedrich is an expert on evolution, immunity, and pathogenesis of pandemic viruses. He is currently working with UW–Madison colleagues and scientists from more than 30 institutions around the world on COVID-19 research.

Dr. Friedrich was a recent guest on UW Now Livestream, hosted by the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association.

He and his team at UW–Madison are tracking genetic changes in the novel coronavirus that occur as it spreads from person to person. These changes are like signatures 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 proportion of Milwaukee County cases are more closely related to viruses from Asia.

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

Dr. Friedrich also shared the following information:

  • 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.

You can watch the entire UW Now Livestream at https://youtu.be/W7Ba6OX-YN0.

The Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association plans to host The UW Now Livestream weekly, featuring UW–Madison faculty and staff with unique expertise.

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