A group of local philanthropic organizations has launched a program that when fully implemented will provide rapid, low-cost coronavirus testing for up to 12,000 people a day in San Antonio. 

The goal of Community Labs, the new nonprofit organization, is 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.

By allowing students or workers to safely return to classrooms and offices, Community Labs hopes to create “the safest city in America,” said Graham Weston, former CEO and chairman of Rackspace Hosting and founder of the 80|20 Foundation

A collaborative effort led by Weston, Community Labs is funded by the 80|20 Foundation, the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation, and The Tobin Endowment, which have contributed a combined $2.5 million to build an all-new testing lab from the ground up.

The lab is housed and operated by BioBridge Global, a nonprofit that oversees the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center and other entities, and the testing has been developed in collaboration with UT Health San Antonio. 

To start, Community Labs will conduct 600 on-site tests a day and increase to between 10,000 and 12,000 daily tests by November. First in line will be about 4,000 students and more than 500 staff in Somerset Independent School District in a rural part of southwestern Bexar County. They will be tested weekly starting Sept. 23 and continuing through the end of the 2020-21 school year.

“When we became aware of this project, we felt like this was very much in line with our mission of helping people,” said BioBridge CEO Marty Landon. “We want to be part of the solution in trying to solve this global pandemic, and particularly in our area.”

Since the pandemic began, nearly 668,000 people in Texas have been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, and more than 14,000 have died, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. In San Antonio, over 50,000 residents have tested positive, and more than 1,000 have died. 

Weston said he contracted the virus in late March from his son, who did not exhibit symptoms. He recovered from the worst of it within a week and was not hospitalized. The experience opened his eyes to how limited the current strategies – good hygiene, face masks, social distancing, and lockdowns – are for preventing spread.

But continued lockdowns are damaging to the economy, said Weston, who is also a member of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Strike Force to Open Texas, a team of medical experts, business leaders, and others advising the governor on safely and strategically reopening the state.

“We have the opportunity to prove what is possible for a community, a city, and eventually the state of Texas and even the nation,” stated Bruce Bugg, chairman and trustee of the Tobin Endowment. “I am excited to partner with Community Labs and this team so we can get children back in school, people back to work, and lead our state in recovering from this pandemic.”

Medical experts have said coronavirus testing is key to controlling and ending the pandemic, but testing capacity has been a significant challenge for municipal governments and health agencies since the crisis began. The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District’s current testing capacity is 7,200 people a day.

“To get out of this pandemic, we need fast, easy coronavirus testing that’s accessible to everyone,” said Atul Gawande, a surgeon and health care author writing for The New Yorker. But it’s not a technological challenge, he wrote. “We’ve got an implementation problem.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 40 percent of viral transmissions occur before an infected person develops any symptoms. In contrast to diagnostic testing, which is usually conducted on those who are already showing symptoms of a disease, “assurance testing” can show whether an asymptomatic person is potentially contagious and should be isolated from others.

“Across the country, we haven’t really done that much assurance testing,” Weston said. “Being able to test schools, for example, can allow us to separate the people who are infected and people who are not. But it also gives a sense of assurance or a sense of safety … to the people who are not infected.”

Graham Weston Credit: Courtesy / BioBridge Global

Community Labs’ processes were inspired by a testing program developed by the Broad Institute, a biomedical and genomic research center of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, and a pilot program at Geekdom that began in August, Weston said.

“The Broad [Institute] changed the game and reinvented how the COVID test is being done,” he said. The institute circumvented persistent shortages in testing supplies by pioneering the use of off-the-shelf products and reagents for testing, he added. 

The test kits used by Community Labs are manufactured by Thermo Fisher Scientific, maker of the lab equipment BioBridge uses, which has emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.

Test samples will be collected by nurses through a contract with Coldchain Technology Services, a logistics company based in the San Antonio area that performs student vaccinations in schools, and then transported to the lab for testing.

The Community Labs testing process uses 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. 

Though BioBridge is more accustomed to testing blood samples, it was able to pivot easily to conducting coronavirus tests because of its experience with high-throughput screening, which allows researchers to quickly test large volumes of samples.

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“This fits right with our mission and what our core capabilities are … in both high-throughput testing as well as nucleic acid testing, which is the genetic testing that we’re talking about [with] PCR,” said Dr. Rachel Beddard, chief medical officer of BioBridge Global. “So for me, it was such a natural and organic evolution to be able to pivot quickly to be able to offer this.”

Neither the district nor Community Labs are funding the Somerset ISD testing pilot. A fund is being set up by Community Labs to cover the cost and donors will be invited to contribute.

In late August, Superintendent Saul Hinojosa said he had studied the possibility of purchasing tests, but found the cheapest option to be cost-prohibitive at $150 a test.

Weston said Community Labs is prioritizing schools, nursing homes, and health care settings for testing in its first rollout. As it builds capacity, the lab will accept requests from workplaces and families. The out-of-pocket cost for individuals is expected to be $35 per test.

Tullos Wells, managing director of the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation, said Community Labs is one of the most consequential efforts the foundation has ever undertaken. “This will have the most immediate impact to get kids back in school, parents back to work, and our community safely back to normal,” he said.

Weston is chairman of Community Labs, with Bugg and Wells serving as vice chairmen.

Even if a vaccine is developed and widely distributed in the coming months, the lab will have laid the foundation for better pandemic infrastructure for the future, one that could be adopted by other cities, Weston said. 

In the meantime, “I think that we should plan for both,” he said. “Until we have a vaccine, we need to be doing asymptomatic testing … to allow us to go back to work. Our goal is to create COVID safety zones, wherever we can.”

Education Reporter Emily Donaldson contributed to this report.

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

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.