Quick Community Labs launch possible only through local cooperation

COVID-19 testing facility based at BioBridge Global receives $1 million boost 

Getting the Community Labs COVID-19 testing program up and running in just three months is a testament to the collaborative nature of the San Antonio healthcare community, leaders of the efforts said in a panel discussion during San Antonio City Fest on Thursday. 

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my many decades in the field,” said BBG Chief Medical Officer Dr. Rachel Beddard, who played a major role in getting the testing laboratory established. “It was honor to be a part of it, and I am proud of what our city and our team have accomplished.” 

Organizers of Community Labs, led by former Rackspace chairman Graham Weston, were able to go from an idea over lunch in July to more than 1,700 tests of students and staff in the Somerset Independent School District as of Thursday. 

The tests are designed to identify individuals carrying and spreading the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 who do not have symptoms, what Weston refers to as “super-spreaders.” 

The short-term plan is to scale up testing in a lab located on the third floor of the BioBridge Global Headquarters Building, using widely available equipment and testing materials to avoid supply chain issues that have hampered other testing efforts. 

Community Labs received a boost this week, Weston announced during the panel discussion, when Carlos Alvarez, chairman and CEO of The Gambrinus Company, pledged $1 million to double the current testing capacity of the lab from 12,000 to 25,000 tests a day. 

“Our goal is to test 100,000 kids in schools,” Weston said. “If we test 100,000, we can make school the safest place these kids can go.” 

He noted that there have been four positive tests so far out of 1,786, four cases that could have spread quickly if those with it displayed no symptoms. 

Dr. Beddard said she greeted the idea of BBG becoming a partner in Community Labs with great enthusiasm, calling it “one of those aha moments, where you definitely realize you want to be part of something.” 

“We do a lot of testing here already – this year, we will do 60 million high-throughput, fast turnaround tests,” she said. “We also have a lot of experience with PCR testing, which means we can do it quickly to meet the need for the 24-hor turnaround time.” 

Community Labs is just the second lab in the country to receive the go-ahead from the Food and Drug Administration to conduct the highly accurate PCR tests at a sensitivity level high enough to identify a large percentage of positive tests, Weston said. 

The nonprofit lab’s long-term goal is to scale up to high levels of testing at an affordable cost — $35 per test at the moment, compared to $150 for comparable PCR tests – and then share what it learns about the process so labs can be established across the state and nation. 

“Were turning every bit of information we learn to anyone who asks about it,” said Tullos Wells, Managing Director of the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation and one of the co-founders of Community Labs, along with Weston and Bruce Bugg, Chairman of the Tobin Foundation. “We want everyone to do this assurance testing so kids will be safe to go back to school and their parents can go back to work.” 

Wells called the effort “the most consequential thing the Kronkosky Foundation has done in the last 25 years.” 

Weston said the collaboration to get Community Labs up and running was a testament to the collaborative spirit in the local medical community. 

“It’s a great San Antonio story,” he said.