Gundersen Health System sequences the genomes of patients’ tumors to better guide cancer treatments. However, these days they are using those machines to learn more about coronavirus.

“We’ve re-tasked these machines to sequence the viral genomes from the COVID-19 infected cases that are identified here at Gundersen,” said Dr. Paraic Kenny, director of Gundersen cancer research institute.

Within the past ten days Gundersen has sequenced ten different local positive COVID cases.

The health system has already learned that as the virus moves from person-to-person it accumulates various mutations.

“Every time the virus replicates, when it divides and infects a person, it doesn’t replicate its genomes perfectly every time,” Kenny said.

Gundersen says it will have the capacity to sequence up to 64 different cases each week.

Its using the learned information to create a large type of family tree– tracing the history of the virus.

“By sequencing the virus we learn not just something about this exact virus right now that’s infecting one of our patients, but we can basically track this history of that virus back all the way to various countries that it has moved through on its way to La Crosse, all the way back to China,” said Kenny.

A few weeks ago, Gundersen created its own COVID-19 test that gets results on-site, this sequencing takes the process a step further.

“We wanted to be able to move Gundersen beyond being able to simply identify which patients are positive and negative for the virus towards a situation where we can understand how the virus is spreading within our community,” Kenny said.

Gundersen says the sequencing shows a small amount of community spread in the area, but that this was not one person alone bringing COVID to the county.

“Instead what we see is that the virus has come in different stages,” said Kenny. “We’ve been able to document seven independent introductions of the virus into La Crosse County.”

The health system says its important to learn more about the virus.

“The more we can understand how the virus is moving, the better chance we have of mitigating its spread at all levels in our community,” Kenny said.