Ending the global coronavirus pandemic will require the world’s top scientists and collaboration, said Heather Hanson, the new president of BioMed SA. Fortunately, San Antonio has both in spades.
“We have a lot going on here,” Hanson said on Wednesday during a panel discussion of bioscience experts hosted by KSAT 12 News. “Because we foster such a great collaborative environment here in San Antonio, companies were immediately calling each other [as the virus spread]. … They got together organically and started coming up with solutions, applying for grants, and working with each other.”
That level of collaboration is what sets San Antonio’s bioscience community apart from other cities, she said. “Particularly in the bioscience community, which can often be competitive … people really do work together. I was really shocked when I first learned that companies share equipment.”
Biotechnology and bioscience companies in the region – big and small – have pivoted toward finding cures, treatments, and better tests to combat the virus, she said. While a vaccine or cure is estimated to be at least a year away, scientists in San Antonio are part of the global push toward those solutions as well as therapies to treat the symptoms of the virus in the meantime.
“What happens in San Antonio often changes the world,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said, citing the local development of vaccinations for Ebola. “We have had a very vibrant biomedical research and development ecosystem for many years.”
Researchers and doctors are working around the clock to solve the novel coronavirus puzzle, the panelists said, and discoveries happen hourly.
While speaking on the panel, Dr. Doug Frantz, a professor of Chemistry at the University of Texas at San Antonio, received an email with some good news.
Some of the drug compounds that the Center for Innovative Drug Discovery Center showed promising results in reducing the virus’s activity in cells, said Frantz, who works at the center, which is a collaboration between UTSA and UT Health San Antonio.
The center’s library of unique small molecules and compounds is “unique to the world” and could contain a key to treatment therapies or the cure, he said, but there’s a long scientific process ahead of announcing any victory.
The panel declined to name the most promising treatment or path to a cure.
Dr. Larry Schlesinger, president and CEO of Texas Biomedical Research Institute, said the science is still out on that.
“I don’t want to promise and then under-deliver,” Schlesinger said. “There’s not a shortcut. … This just takes time.”
Texas Biomed is working on 15 animal studies including testing mice, ferrets, and primates for reactions to the virus, vaccines, and theories about reinfections, he said.
Dr. Rachel Beddard, chief medical officer of BioBridge Global, the organization that operates the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center, said BioBridge and its subsidiaries are looking to test recovered patients’ blood to find antibodies useful in treating those fighting the disease.
The effectiveness of treating patients with plasma from blood is unknown, but the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center has begun collecting from eligible donors last week and was “one of the first in the nation” to do so, Beddard said.
UT Health San Antonio is running several clinical trials for antiviral drugs and therapies, said Chief of Infectious Disease Dr. Thomas Patterson.
“We will have results in about a month probably,” Patterson said, noting that it will still take several more months to verify a treatment’s efficacy and scale up production if it is found to be useful.
Among other areas of research and development, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is also working on screening drug candidates in addition to finding best practices for mask sterilization and the production of other needs such as ventilators.
SwRI is part of the Medical Manufacturing Alliance of South Central Texas aimed at filling gaps in the personal protective equipment (PPE) supply chain
The panelists agreed that there will likely be a second wave of positive cases in San Antonio – especially if social distancing requirements are lifted.
As local mathematical models were released Wednesday, estimating when the area’s daily infection rate will peak, it’s important to remember that those estimates assume social distancing is maintained at the current level, Schlesinger said. “We’re going to have to maintain our vigilance” after the curve begins to flatten and the local outbreak is under control.
“We didn’t finish the Ebola vaccine … when this is no longer a crisis sometimes the energy and the money go away,” he said. “We need to change that … so when the next outbreak occurs we’re in better shape.”
While elected officials are under pressure to reopen businesses and return to some sense of a “normal” economy, Frantz said that the pressure policymakers should be listening to is coming from scientists.
Nirenberg agreed and noted that the task force he will soon establish with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff to look at how to best contain the virus and when to relax restrictions will be entirely driven by science, data, and what public health experts recommend.
“Science is going to be what solves this problem,” Frantz said, so science should drive policy. “I hope it’s a lesson we never forget.”
Correction: This article has been updated to accurately identify the Center for Innovative Drug Discovery Center as a collaboration between UTSA and UT Health San Antonio.