The federal agency that aims to protect Americans from pandemics and bioterrorism has promoted a San Antonio-based research institute into its top contracting ranks, opening the institute up to wider funding opportunities.

The Texas Biomedical Research Institute announced Tuesday it has been elevated by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) into the top ranks of the agency’s national readiness and preparedness network.

BARDA oversees the advanced research and development of vaccines and treatments for public health emergencies such as disease outbreaks, bioterrorism attacks and nuclear incidents. It’s part of the Administration for Strategic Preparedness within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

This new designation makes it possible for Texas Biomed to receive up to $100 million in federal funding over the next five years through research awards, which will help it to expand its current research portfolio and staff, said Ricardo Carrion Jr., the co-leader of disease intervention and prevention.

While Texas Biomed has worked with BARDA for almost a decade, it has been as a subcontractor, Carrion said. Being designated as a “prime contractor” gives Texas Biomed a chance to receive funding through the federal agency’s network that aims to better develop and use animal research study data to provide evidence for the effectiveness of therapies and vaccines.

“This new designation provides us a more direct line of communication with BARDA,” Carrion told the San Antonio Report. “Our job will be to respond to the opportunities that are provided by BARDA to create animal models or evaluate vaccines and therapies” against disease.

Founded in 1941, the Texas Biomedical Research Institute is a nonprofit that specializes in genetics, virology and immunology research. It is home to the Southwest National Primate Research Center — one of only seven national primate facilities in the country. Texas Biomed houses about 2,500 primates used to test vaccines and other therapies.

Fewer than 15 labs nationwide are part of this network, and Texas Biomed is the only one in Texas, the research institute noted in a press release. BARDA describes the purpose of these awards as building lab capability in the areas of “animal model development and analytical method development, qualification, validation and testing.”

“The significance of this cannot be overstated — it demonstrates Texas Biomed’s ability to compete at the top level for research grants and contracts designed to keep our nation safe,” said Texas Biomed President and CEO Larry Schlesinger. “We are now fully integrated into the federal fabric of preparedness. Texas Biomed is ideally and uniquely suited to be part of forward-thinking solutions for the growing infectious disease threats we face.”

The institute played a key role over the past two years in research on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the move affirms San Antonio City Council’s decision to support Texas Biomed with American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. Earlier this year, City Council voted to approve a spending plan for federal pandemic recovery grants that included a controversial $10 million in the plan for Texas Biomed.

The award of ARPA funds came after Texas Biomed pulled its funding request from the city’s 2022 bond package after hearing objections over its research on animals. The institute had originally asked for $11 million in bond money to fund infrastructure on its campus.

“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we need modern, cutting-edge responses to 21st-century health security threats,” Nirenberg said. “Texas Biomed has a proven track record of delivering those solutions so I’m not surprised that they’ve been chosen for this prestigious responsibility.”

Since 2015, Texas Biomed has received about $46 million through contracts from BARDA, the institute said in its press release. A recent example is its ongoing work with the Sabin Vaccine Institute to develop a vaccine candidate for a variant of the Ebola virus.

The vaccine is being deployed now in Uganda under a rule allowing experimental treatments to be offered in life-threatening global outbreaks. Later work between the partners will round out the requirements for future FDA evaluation.

The new designation comes as Texas Biomed enters the fourth year of its 10-year strategic plan, noted Nicole Foy, director of public relations. That plan aims to double the size of faculty and the institute’s staff, grow public-private partnerships, increase technology and foster technology transfer, she said.

The new prime BARDA designation promises to bring even more business to Texas Biomed, Foy said, which will help the institute to continue to bring new jobs and funds to San Antonio.

Foy noted that under this new plan, ground has been broken on the institute’s 200-acre campus in San Antonio for a new, $15 million animal housing complex.

Texas Biomed came under scrutiny last year by PETA and other animal rights activists when it had to amputate frostbitten fingers, toes, and tail tips from 159 of its baboons as a result of Winter Storm Uri in February 2021, and again earlier this year when its primate center director was placed under federal oversight for falsifying data.

The Texas Biomedical Research Institute is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.