Private San Antonio philanthropists take on the task of widespread testing-- particularly of asymptomatic people-- picking up the ball that public health can’t carry.
After Graham Weston caught the coronavirus from his son, who hadn’t shown any symptoms, the San Antonio tech entrepreneur realized that the role of “silent spreaders” demanded more attention.
He and other prominent philanthropic leaders in the city formed a new nonprofit with the express purpose of screening hundreds and eventually thousands of people to identify who is infected and asymptomatic and keep them from unknowingly spreading the virus.
The larger goal is even more ambitious: deliver an effective way of supporting society’s recovery from the pandemic.
“We can never really suppress the virus and give people the confidence to go back (to school or work) when we have silent spreaders walking through our population,” said Weston, founder of the 80 | 20 Foundation and former CEO and chairman of Rackspace Technology.
The nonprofit, called Community Labs, has adopted a new approach to testing that focuses on micro populations in shared places, such as area schools and businesses.
Experts estimate that up to half of people who contract the coronavirus may display no symptoms, said bank executive J. Bruce Bugg Jr., chairman and trustee of the Tobin Endowment and co-founder of Community Labs. While hospitals have widely screened patients for the coronavirus when they are scheduled for surgery, federal > and local health officials have largely prioritized testing people with symptoms.
It’s an approach that has persisted since early in the pandemic, when testing for the coronavirus was severely limited by regulatory, processing and supply chain bottlenecks. Health departments, including the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, initially focused their efforts on people who were severely ill, those with classic symptoms and front-line workers.
Metro Health briefly tested asymptomatic people in the community earlier this year but halted the effort when a surge of cases over the summer caused demand for testing to skyrocket.
While testing those with symptoms may help diagnose people with COVID-19, it does little to halt chains of transmission that stem from asymptomatic carriers. To fill that testing gap, Community Labs is taking the “exact opposite” approach, Bugg said.
He said the goal is to create a strong testing model that screens for asymptomatic carriers and that can be replicated and applied in cities across the state.
Community Labs’ approach hinges on quick turnaround times, which are not typical with the traditional testing. Waiting a week for results would render the value of testing asymptomatic people moot, Weston said, as they won’t know to isolate themselves and already could have spread the virus to others by the time they learn they are infected.
Community Labs was co-founded by Weston, Bugg and J. Tullos Wells, managing director of the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation. Weston is serving as chairman, while Bugg and Wells are vice chairmen.
The Kronkosky and 80 | 20 foundations and the Tobin Endowment have contributed a combined $2.5 million to start the nonprofit.