COVID-19 has made a lot of Texans really sick… and one Texas billionaire, Graham Weston, concerned enough to do something about it.
After catching the coronavirus from his asymptomatic son in March, Weston, a resident of New Braunfels, became gravely ill. Weston’s experience spurred him to advocate for increased testing, especially to find asymptomatic infected people. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 40% of people infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, but they can still spread the disease.
Cofounder and former CEO and chairman of Rackspace Hosting, Weston has donated $2.5 million to set up a nonprofit testing laboratory. The lab will be used to test over 4,000 students in a school district outside San Antonio for COVID-19. This will be largest COVID-19 testing effort so far among U.S. schoolchildren. Eventually, the organization intends to test every schoolchild in San Antonio. If the testing experiment works, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott would like to spread the concept to other Texas schools.
Weston’s efforts are patterned after testing methods first set up by Boston geneticist Dr. Stacey Gabriel, a member of Scientists To Stop COVID-19, a group working to fight the pandemic. Her idea was to create mass-testing capacity without the need for government help or expensive test manufacturers. Dr. Gabriel’s laboratory performs about 65,000 daily tests at 100 colleges across the Northeast at a cost of about $25 per test.
While many health-care experts agree testing is a good idea, it can be costly, and getting access to testing materials can be difficult. However, Weston thinks getting large numbers of people tested may be doable, with cost-cutting measures. The testing efforts he has backed will use easy-to-find materials where possible, like mass-produced plastic tubes and swabs instead of proprietary testing equipment. Bottlenecks in testing supplies (especially of proprietary items needed for testing with many large-volume lab machines) early in the pandemic confounded U.S. efforts at mass testing.
Weston’s new lab can test a person using the gold-standard PCR testing method for $35, or about 15% of what major laboratories charge. PCR tests are highly accurate, even for determining whether a person is sick very shortly after he or she is infected. To keep the infected from passing the virus to others, Weston also set up testing for his employees in San Antonio. He’s lost faith in government-based testing efforts, in part because the government isn’t set up correctly to test massive numbers of Americans.
“All the greatest minds at the CDC had years upon years and billions of dollars to prepare for this, and what they came up with was: Wear a mask?”
He has petitioned many people nationwide to fund similar labs where they live. Some have responded. Washington, D.C., financier Russ Ramsey is working to set up a testing facility to serve students in that area and to serve local employees of Deloitte and Amazon. The Professional Golfers’ Association is looking into testing fans and competitors next year.
Weston’s group linked with local laboratory Biobridge Global for testing. The group purchased unused testing equipment from warehouses nationwide to save money. They designed a system based on automated machines like the Hamilton Microlab STAR that can test many samples at once. The lab uses a process that allows use of generic equipment and has found a way to leap some (but not all) of the regulatory hurdles.
It’s those hurdles that kept the Weston group from starting tests by Labor Day, near when schools reopened. The group is waiting for final FDA laboratory clearance after being stymied by being unable to find enough people who tested positive with the virus to prove their method works. Weston eventually found a school group willing to take the testing plunge. Local groups have pitched in to help pay for the project. Governor Abbott also hopes to get federal funding for the initiative. The plan is to test every student and staffer in the Somerset Independent School District each week, quarantine the sick in their homes, and bar those who won’t get tested from after-school activities.
Disclaimer: This article does not provide medical advice. Do not take action based solely on this article and always consult with an appropriate healthcare professional. This article is purely for informational purposes.