More than half of all COVID-19 transmission comes from people who show no symptoms of the virus, a new medical study has reported, and 35 percent of people infect others before they start to feel sick. 

As the winter surge of cases continues and a new, more contagious variant of coronavirus emerges, identifying those silent spreaders is key to controlling the spread of the pandemic. 

Since September, a San Antonio-based nonprofit established to provide asymptomatic coronavirus testing has found that 5 to 7 percent of those among the general public who sought testing were positive for the virus – and potential silent spreaders. In schools, where Community Labs first tried its model, the positivity rate is just under 1 percent.

Community Labs, created with $2.5 million in funding from three philanthropic organizations, offers no-cost, rapid COVID-19 screening in partnership with BioBridge Global and UT Health San Antonio.

It was founded by three business leaders who believed assurance testing, combined with symptom-based screening, could help make San Antonio the safest city in America. 

“It turns out that they were right,” said Sal Webber, president of Community Labs, referring to the founders – local business and philanthropic leaders Graham Weston, Bruce Bugg, and Tullos Wells. “If you can pull the asymptomatic spreaders out of the population, you’re going to have an impact on the overall positivity rate.”

The difference in positivity rates between the public and school settings comes from the fact that when the public requests testing through Community Labs, in many cases, it’s because they have a known exposure, Webber said. Schools, on the other hand, offer a more randomized sample in which everyone is tested, whether they’ve been knowingly exposed or not. 

After a back-to-school kickoff at Somerset High School in the fall, Community Labs has expanded into all campuses within the San Antonio Independent School District as well as schools in the East Central, Edgewood, and South San districts.

“We feel good about having made schools our focus and will continue to make schools a focus,” said co-founder Bruce Bugg, chairman of the Tobin Endowment and board member and chairman of the Bank of San Antonio. “But we’ve also broadened out into the community.”

Through a $2.8 million contract with the City of San Antonio and another $2 million from the County – funding from the CARES Act – testing is provided to individuals at no cost. No one is turned away unless they are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.

Since its start, Community Labs has tested 150,000 people in the community. But that number is expected to reach 200,000 within days, Webber said. Prior to the Christmas holidays, the nonprofit was testing 3,500 people a day at its three public testing sites. These days, the count is closer to 2,800 a day.

He said the lines of people at the three testing sites – the AT&T Center and the Ramirez and Cuellar community centers – are often made up of people looking for assurance they won’t carry the virus to family, friends, or coworkers, Webber said. 

They’re nursing home caregivers and family members hoping to visit their loved ones in a nursing home, people who have traveled to San Antonio or are planning a trip elsewhere, and workers whose employers are requesting proof of a negative test before they can return to the workplace. 

Community Labs is also providing assurance testing, at a price of $50 per test, for employees at several businesses and institutions throughout San Antonio, places such as Santikos Entertainment, the Southwest Research Institute, Bank of San Antonio, the RK Group, and the Texas Biomedical Research Institute.

The nonprofit is providing testing services for employees of Spurs Sports & Entertainment, though not the players, and on Wednesday, it tested Olympic athletes in advance of a USA Swimming meet to be hosted in San Antonio. Community Labs officials hope to do more ad hoc testing for such events.

“One of the big things about San Antonio is all of the events that happen, and if we can somehow play a role in helping people feel safe, and keep those events on the calendar, that’s going to help everybody,” Webber said.

Scaling to a level that allows Community Labs to help everybody has been made possible through private funding, and more recently government contracts. In October, the Impetus Foundation on behalf of Carlos and Malú Alvarez donated $1 million to help expand the operation, and the nonprofit is continually seeking grants, including funding from the federal government.

The state’s Division of Emergency Management also has contracted with Community Labs to provide up to 10,000 tests per day for first responders in both Laredo and El Paso. Community Labs provides the service to the state on a month-to-month renewal basis at a cost of $35 per test plus travel expenses.

“We’re starting to go where the state sees the greatest need,” Bugg said. Other states and cities are knocking on their doors as well, including officials from El Paso, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, New York City, Atlanta, and Baton Rouge. 

“There are a lot of people that are trying to figure out how they get the philanthropic side of it together to get started,” Webber said, though he suspects most are relying on public dollars. “We talk to anybody that wants to talk about it, so we’ve been very open.”

The team has also created a how-to guide they call, “lab in a box,” which Webber said is 67 pages explaining how they built the lab and how it can be replicated. “The whole recipe in excruciating detail is in that document,” he said. They’ve sent out 25 of the guidebooks so far. 

But founding a nonprofit with a mission like that of Community Labs is not for the faint of heart, Bugg said. 

“Graham and Tullos and I joke with each other that none of us are doctors, and we probably shouldn’t try this at home, but we tried it anyway,” he said. “We know through our private-sector experience how to basically take a concept and turn it into execution of a model.

“We just kind of locked arms and said we’re going to make this happen.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

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