The business and scientific minds behind a new coronavirus testing effort in San Antonio say that if their model works the way they think it will, it could be replicated across the state and the nation.

The group met at BioBridge Global headquarters Thursday to formally launch Community Labs, described by one founder as “the newest and probably the largest, dedicated COVID lab” in the nation.

The new nonprofit lab, housed at BioBridge’s headquarters in Northwest San Antonio, aims to regularly test people within a given group, such as schools or workplaces, so that asymptomatic carriers can be quickly identified and isolated before they can spread the virus. 

The program will conduct 600 on-site tests a day, starting in Somerset Independent School District next week, and steadily increase its capacity up to 12,000 daily tests in schools and other congregate settings by November. Test results will be available within 24 hours, lab officials said.

Community Labs has two purposes, said its chairman, Graham Weston, former head of Rackspace Hosting and founder of the 80/20 Foundation, one of three philanthropic organizations funding the startup lab.

“One is to stop the threat in San Antonio, and secondly, we hope to inspire other cities, other communities, to do the same,” Weston said. 

After recovering from COVID-19 in March, Weston solicited financial support to develop Community Labs from Bruce Bugg, chairman and trustee of the Tobin Endowment, and Tullos Wells, managing director of the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation. Together, the philanthropic organizations have committed $2.5 million to the effort.

“Graham and Tullos and I have tried to band together and do a number of projects to help the San Antonio community. This one is larger than anything we’ve ever taken on,” Bugg told reporters and others gathered at BioBridge on Thursday. “I believe what we are launching today in San Antonio, Texas, has the opportunity to be a game-changer for this whole race to eradicate COVID-19.”

He said Community Labs founders met with Gov. Greg Abbott, and he supports the effort.

“We’re scaling this up so you can … test for asymptomatic people and get the assurance testing in the community and try to get everybody back to a sense of normalcy,” Bugg said. “We want to get back to our lives the way they were before. We think this is one of the best ways of getting there.”

The cost of testing at Somerset ISD is being covered by Community Labs, he said, but the group is in talks with other schools and local companies that could pay for the testing at their sites. The out-of-pocket cost for individuals is expected to be $35 per test.

“But predominantly, we are looking at the COVID-19 funding the state of Texas, the counties and cities, have received and trying to see if, that way, we can scale this up to the potential that we believe this entire project has,” Bugg said.

The founders said they settled upon establishing the effort as a nonprofit despite suggestions that public and corporate funds could be used to establish a commercial venture instead. 

“[Community Labs] is by far the most consequential thing we will ever invest in in the 25-year history of the foundation,” Wells said of the Kronkosky Foundation. “We were about making sure that our community is safe so that kids can go to school, parents can go to work, and we can open this economy.

“This will be one of those things that will be spoken about years from now.”

For help in building a testing lab, Weston turned to BioBridge, the nonprofit organization that oversees the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center. The lab will be overseen by Dr. Rachel Beddard, chief medical officer at BioBridge, a high-volume blood and tissue testing center that Beddard said already is on track to release 60 million test results of varying kinds this year. 

While Community Labs and its processes are new to BioBridge, the coronavirus test itself is not new. 

“It’s not something that we came up with on our own,” Beddard said. “We took a test that’s tried and true … an assay that Thermo Fisher Scientific got their emergency-use authorization [for] … back in March of this year. So this is a tried-and-true assay that has been used widely throughout the country [and even] worldwide.”

Dr. Rachel Beddard, chief medical officer at BioBridge Global Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Beddard said she and the team of about a dozen others at BioBridge working on the project also relied on the expertise of Dr. Marjorie David, assistant professor in UT Health San Antonio’s Department of Pathology, and Dr. Marsha Kinney, chairman of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine department at UT Health San Antonio.

“Their scientific expertise was invaluable as well,” she said, adding that UT Health researchers provided not only advice, but also the paired samples needed to evaluate the testing process. 

The coronavirus test Community Labs will be using is a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which is 95 percent sensitive to detecting the virus in people who aren’t showing any symptoms. 

The test requires a swab in the front part of the nostril and will be self-administered in the first round of testing Community Labs has planned at the seven schools in Somerset ISD. 

Somerset ISD Superintendent Saul Hinojosa said students returning to school for on-campus instruction will be tested once a week through the end of the school year, and teachers twice a week, at least initially. About 40 percent of the total 4,000-student population is currently attending classes in person. 

“Why do we have less than half?” said Hinojosa of the students on campus. “It’s the fear factor.” He said that after a football coach tested positive for the virus over the summer, the number of athletes attending tryouts and practice dropped from 200 to 25. 

“So the way you overcome this fear is that you ensure that everybody who’s in school is negative,” he said. “We need kids in the classroom so they can learn.”

The 80/20 Foundation, the Tobin Endowment, Tullos Wells, and UT Health San Antonio are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business and nonprofit members, click here.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.