(Clockwise from left) San Antonio Report Editor & Publisher Robert Rivard, BioBridge Global Sr. Vice President & Chief Medical Officer Rachel Beddard, Kronkosky Charitable Foundation Managing Director J. Tullos Wells, Weston Properties owner Graham Weston, and Tobin Endowment Chairman & Trustee Bruce Bugg Jr. speak during a virtual session at San Antonio CityFest. Credit: San Antonio Report

Community Labs, which was founded just weeks ago to provide low-cost and rapid lab testing for San Antonio residents with no symptoms of coronavirus, was given a $1 million jolt to help expand the operation.

Community Labs chairman Graham Weston announced the donation by the Impetus Foundation on behalf of Carlos and Malú Alvarez during Thursday afternoon’s CityFest panel, “Smart Testing: Taming the Pandemic.” 

“All combined, I think it’s a great San Antonio story,” said Weston, who is former CEO and chairman of Rackspace Hosting and founder of the 80|20 Foundation.

The goal of Community Labs is to regularly test people within a given group, such as schools or workplaces so that asymptomatic carriers can quickly be identified and isolated before they can spread the virus, and others who are not infectious can safely return to classrooms and workplaces. 

Community Labs Is the first of two programs nationally to provide assurance testing approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The other is in Boston, Weston said.

The Alvarez donation will be used to more-than-double testing capacity in the nonprofit’s labs at BioBridge Global – from 12,000 to 25,000 a day.

“We’re so excited to do it, and this will let us test even more schools,” Weston said. “If we have excess capacity, we’re going to contract with businesses as well, but we’re putting the schools first.”

Community Labs began its first testing in the Somerset Independent School District and, through a contract with the City of San Antonio, began offering asymptomatic testing at no cost to the general public on Oct. 5 at three of the City’s testing sites.

So far in Somerset, the nonprofit has tested 1,786 students and staff, and found four individuals who tested positive, possibly preventing a “silent” super-spreader event. 

“The statistics are that half the people who get sick get it through someone who didn’t have symptoms, so that makes the danger of the virus going exponential very, very possible, and we’re seeing that at the White House right now,” Weston said. “So to me that’s a great example.”

Alvarez is chairman and CEO of The Gambrinus Company, makers of Shiner Bock beer. In April, the brewery donated $500,000 to the Texas Restaurant Relief Fund to provide financial assistance to the state’s restaurants impacted by COVID-19. 

“San Antonio is very fortunate to have Community Labs working to increase testing and reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our community,” Alvarez stated. “I hope others will be inspired like I was and add their financial help to this organization.”

The CityFest panel also featured Community Labs vice chairmen Bruce Bugg, who is chairman and trustee of the Tobin Endowment, and Tullos Wells, managing director of the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation. 

The three philanthropists who started the project with $2.5 million in funding met several months ago to make plans for Community Labs and asked BioBridge Global to develop the test and build the lab. 

“It was one of those things where we thought we can’t not do this, this is a project that we must support,” said Dr. Rachel Beddard, chief medical officer of BioBridge Global, who also appeared on Thursday’s panel. “We’re all really collaborative folks to begin with and actually that’s kind of a hallmark of San Antonio.”

Wells said Community Labs is providing a way to “battle our way back out” of a public health and economic crisis. 

“Everybody’s looking for a way to get tests done,” Wells said. “Because of this disease, if we don’t know who has it and who doesn’t, it’s very hard to keep all of us safe, and the resulting chaos has been obviously shutting down the school or shutting down the economy.”

“This is the best of what we could do for the San Antonio community,” added Bugg. “We’re all three very proud to be playing a role in trying to bring this first to San Antonio, and then broaden the scope, not only throughout the state of Texas but throughout the entire country.”

The group has been in talks with officials in numerous cities, including Phoenix, looking to develop a similar program that starts with philanthropic funding to “de-risk the model,” and is then supported and scaled to greater capacity by government entities. 

“All we want to do is take this broader and wider and share it throughout the entire state of Texas – that’s our goal,” Bugg said. 

Weston also announced Thursday that Community Labs plans to expand its free testing services to more City testing sites in the coming weeks and will publish the locations and hours on its website.

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

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Shari Biediger

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