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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

Wisconsin Experts On COVID-19 Recovery, Therapy And Vaccines

Chuck Quirmbach
A sign, on the floor of a Milwaukee-area grocery store, attempts to steer shoppers into more physical distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

How many people in Wisconsin have survived a COVID-19 diagnosis?

That’s the Bubbler Talk question listener Gene Kelber, of Shorewood, sent our way. He says he and his wife are in a high-risk age group for the disease.

"We're both over 70 and we wondered how this is going to impact our life and relationship with our friends,  our children, and our grandchildren who live in Shorewood,” Kelber says.

>>WUWM & NPR Coronavirus Coverage

Here are some answers, as well as an update on scientific research into ways to help people get well or stay well:

Wisconsin statistics indicate statewide, 76% of the people with confirmed COVID-19 recover. In Milwaukee County, the percentage is a bit lower — 71%. Recovery, by the state’s definition, means there's documentation of resolved symptoms, documentation of release from public health isolation, or 30 days since symptom onset or diagnosis.

In Wisconsin, 76% of people with confirmed COVID-19 recover.

With about 24,000 COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin, that means about 18,000 people have recovered.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer of the state Bureau of Communicable Diseases, says a lot has to do with the ability of a patient's immune system to fight off the coronavirus. Westergaard says human-produced proteins called antibodies are part of the equation.

"In response to any foreign protein, whether it's a bacteria or a virus, the body generally makes antibodies in response. Sometimes, those antibodies play a large role in neutralizing the infection and doing damage to the body, and sometimes, less so. So, there are other blood cells called leukocytes and a whole range of white blood cells that are part of the body's response. There's a lot we're still learning about why some people have more severe illness than others,” Westergaard said.

>>Coronavirus Antibody Tests Now Available In Wisconsin Amid Caution

Some relatives of COVID-19 survivors also credit quick access to high quality health care, and even some say it's luck, when their family member stays alive. But Wisconsin alone, there are still more than 5,000 active COVID-19 cases. About 720 people in the state have died due to COVID-19 — 69% were age 70 and up.

Across the world, more than 450,000 people have passed away.

So, some researchers are working on ways to heal patients faster or reduce their symptoms.  

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
Demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter rally in Brookfield, June 5. Some wore masks, others didn't.

Dr. Amy Jenkins is with the Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA.) She recently told a webcast offered by the journalism resource group SciLine that DARPA is working on a bigger version of what's being tried in Milwaukee and elsewhere — taking plasma from recovered patients and using those antibodies to help current patients. 

"That's great, but it's not particularly scalable. For each person who wants to donate their plasma, you may only be able to treat a handful of people with that plasma. What we want to do is go into that plasma, that blood, find the best antibodies, because not all of them are great, find what are really the good ones and then manufacture them in large bio-reactors. Then, give them back to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people,” Jenkins said, adding the manufactured antibodies could even be used as a vaccine.

Other researchers are also going the large-scale antibody route and some preliminary test results are due this summer. 

As many as 150 groups worldwide are working just on potential COVID-19 vaccines. At the UW-Madison, researcher Peter Halfmann is part of a team developing what they call CoroFlu, which he says is based on an existing influenza vaccine. 

"We're taking out one of the proteins, the genes, of the coronavirus, putting it into a vaccine vector that's already going through Phase 2 clinical trial in Europe as a flu vaccine. So, we have some efficacy and we have some safety data for this platform that we're using. We modified the platform, so it will now target the coronavirus. It kind of gives us a leg up,” Halfmann told WUWM.

Credit Courtesy of Eric Hamilton
Inside the Influenza Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Halfmann says more work is ahead, and human testing is still six months away. He says other vaccines are likely to be ready first. But he says there may be a role for CoroFlu.

"As vaccines come out, we're going to see what's working and what doesn't work, and we can try to modify our vaccine to fill in the part that other vaccines are not working for,” Halfmann said.

The Trump administration's COVID-19 vaccine effort, called Operation Warp Speed, hopes to roll out a vaccine by the end of the year. Some scientists and Democrats are skeptical.  

In Shorewood, Bubbler Talk questioner Gene Kelber says he'll keep his fingers crossed. But in the meantime, he’ll make sure friends and family practice social distancing. 

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