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How Local San Antonio Efforts Are Combating The COVID-19 Pandemic Across The Country

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination study at the Research Centers of America in Hollywood
Marco Bello
A health worker takes plasma after a separation process from blood samples in centrifuge during a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination study at the Research Centers of America, in Hollywood, Florida, U.S., September 24, 2020.

The state of Texas has just surpassed its 1 millionth COVID-19 case. Holiday celebrations have been canceled, big life events have been postponed until further notice and mask fatigue is setting in.

But in San Antonio, several companies are working to help the United States return to some sort of normalcy. From immediate fixes (like germ-killing robots) to more long-term projects (like creating a vaccine and expanding asymptomatic testing), these researchers’ efforts have spread across the nation.

Germ-Killing Robots

Business is booming for one San Antonio company that builds a robot designed to destroy microscopic pathogens — including the virus that causes COVID-19.

Xenex robots have safely been operated more than 24 million times and are often used in healthcare facilities.

Shortly after COVID-19 struck, Xenex found the UV light from its robot could kill the virus that causes it in two minutes. Texas Biomed in San Antonio successfully tested the robot against the virus in April of this year.

Morris Miller, CEO of Xenex Disinfection Services, said business is booming, and the San Antonio factory is busy.

“We’ve grown our employee base about 30% since the start of the pandemic and our sales are up about 600%,” said Miller.

A Xenex robot uses UV light to kills germs in a gym.

The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston was the first client to test and purchase the robot, followed by Minnesota’s renowned Mayo Clinic.

Part of its appeal is its simplicity: An attendant can wheel the robot from one area of a hospital to another, switch it on and can then step outside as it flashes away. After it is powered up, its head rises from its body. A 360-degree halo of UV light then flashes from its neck. The UV light travels far, but it’s most effective virus-killing range falls in a 14-foot diameter.

Dr. Mark Povroznik is a vice president and chairman at West Virginia Medicine United Hospital Center. His hospital uses the robots along with traditional cleaning crews to disinfect most areas.

He said they also used the robot to sanitize medical masks that were in tight supply at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak around the spring.

“We were able to essentially operationalize mask disinfection at about a day and preserve thousands of masks during the early pandemic when our staff needed them the most,” Povroznik said.

Xenex officials said the robot can now be found in schools, hotels, government offices, convention centers, office buildings, luxury high-rises, police stations, jails and airports around the world. The San Antonio International Airport became the first airport in the world to use the robot this summer.

Xenex signed up one of its highest profile clients just this August — the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.

Eddie Levins, director of team security, said the robot is used in common areas of the stadium and places unseen by fans, like player locker rooms and equipment rooms.

“One of our challenges was not just disinfecting rooms, but also things, whether it be keys and phones, but also football equipment, helmets, shoulder pads, anything that players touch.”

Xenex signed up one of its highest profile clients just this August — the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.

Company CEO Morris Miller said they've tried to make the robot more personal, even though their business is primarily in corporate sales. Clients are encouraged to give their Xenex robots a name.

“It’s easy for our customers to name the robots. We put on name plates, so they have things like Germinator, R2Clean2, or if you know the Dr. Suess books: Thing 1 and Thing 2,” Miller said.

The global market research firm Technavio reports the market for such environmental disinfection is poised to grow by more than $400 million by 2024, and said that Xenex is one of nine major players in the industry.

Primate Research For Vaccines

Texas Biomedical Research Institute is located on the edge of San Antonio, but it's at the center of the fight against the COVID virus. Hundreds of rhesus macaques are kept at the Southwest National Primate Research Center on Texas Biomed’s campus.

And they may have helped President Donald Trump recover from COVID.

The macaques, a species of monkeys, were used in early research on the antibody cocktail the president began receiving on the day of his COVID diagnosis.

“We were able to demonstrate both prophylactic and therapeutic efficacy” using these monkeys, Texas Biomed virologist Ricardo Carrion said.

He added that it was research with these macaques that helped scientists determine more than one antibody would be needed to fight the virus.

“You have two antibodies that are targeted towards an important region of the virus' receptor binding domain. And the idea would be that if you if something tries to escape, you have an antibody that will clear it out. So this greatly reduces the chance of these what we call escape mutants — variants that emerge that can escape a therapeutic,” Carrion said.

The animals at Biomed are also being used in vaccine studies — research focused on how long immunity might last.

“Some vaccines, you can get one shot and have lifetime-lasting immunity. But we don't know about this,” Carrion said. “And what happens in six months — do you need another shot? So there are animal experiments going on now that will help inform us as to whether or not we should call everybody back in six months to get a booster or not.”

As someone who heads a few national committees on antibodies and vaccine research, Carrion said one good thing about doing research during a pandemic is that often, competitors from around the world become collaborators.

Biomed scientists are currently doing research on five COVID counter-agents — treatments and vaccines.

Asymptomatic Testing Trials

Testing and contact tracing have helped to stop the spread of the virus, but half of the people who contract COVID catch the virus from someone who doesn’t have symptoms.

Now, a San Antonio nonprofit biotech organization is pursuing more testing for asymptomatic people.

The asymptomatic testing program is the brainchild of three wealthy San Antonio-area businessmen. One of them is Graham Weston, the former CEO of tech company Rackspace. Weston caught the virus from his son, who wasn’t showing any symptoms. He became so ill that he changed his will and prepared for the worst.

But he recovered, and when he did, he had an idea. Weston explained the concept of asymptomatic testing — also known as assurance testing — during a news conference.

Jerry Clayton / Texas Public Radio
Community labs began offering asymptomatic testing at the AT&T center on Wednesday November 11th, 2020.

“The idea is to go to a population who don’t have the disease and find those who actually have the virus silently. That’s the idea of assurance testing,” he said.

Weston and two partners created the nonprofit Community Labs and partnered with Biobridge Global, a large biomedical company based in San Antonio, to build a large COVID testing facility.
There’s nothing new about their test. It’s an established, FDA-approved COVID-19 test.

However, Community Labs can handle high volumes of testing and quickly turn around the results. The test is less intrusive and can even be self-administered.

Bruce Bugg, vice chairman of Community Labs, said results are typically ready in under 24 hours.

Community Labs can currently handle more than 12,000 tests a day. The plan is to scale up to 100,000 daily. The testing has helped Bexar County reach record-high levels of daily testing, including 2,227 tests on Tuesday alone.

And, they’re giving the plans out to anyone who wants them.

“We are putting all of our plans, all of our technology, which lab equipment we’re buying up on the website and making it totally transparent so it’s kind of a do-it-yourself kit” for any community that wants it, he said.

The program will work well for what Bugg calls micro-populations, schools and large businesses. Those micro-populations would also have to determine how to pay for the tests, which cost about $35 each.

Screen grab
Graham Weston is chairman of Community Labs.

The City of San Antonio is offering testing through Community Labs at Cuellar and Ramirez Community Centers. Several schools are also hosting testing, including Somerset High School, where sophomore Ty Denton is enrolled.

Denton attested to how noninvasive the test is.

“They give me this Q-tip and they tell me to rotate for five seconds on each nostril, so I just do that for five seconds and it's done... that’s it,” Denton said.

He gets tested once a week.

“Yeah, it’s a sigh of relief and that I know that I'm not getting anyone else sick, and that’s good to know,” Denton added.

The City of Phoenix is interested and recently sent a delegation to check out Community Labs. Recently, Bexar County commissioners approved $304,000 for a program with Community Labs to test 750 children and staff at five county foster children’s shelters. Testing at the shelters will continue until all children and staff are tested.

Several businesses are also hosting testing, including Geekdom, Santikos Entertainment and The Hoppy Monk.

Additional reporting by Brian Kirkpatrick, Bonnie Petrie and Jerry Clayton.

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