research on the rocks

Texas vodka brand doles out $1M grant to Houston research institution for COVID-19 vaccine

Two researchers from Baylor College of Medicine are working on taking their work on a SARS vaccine and adjusting it to target COVID-19 — and they just got $1 million from Tito's Handmade Vodka to keep up their work. Photo via bcm.edu

A vodka distiller based in Austin is sending funds to a Houston research group that's working on a vaccine to fight the coronavirus.

Tito's Handmade Vodka — through its philanthropic arm Love, Tito's — has pledged to give Baylor College of Medicine a $1 million grant to accelerate research on a vaccine for the virus.

Two BCM researchers are taking the work they began in 2011 to develop a SARS vaccine with the intent to make adjustments to target SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Dr. Peter Hotez is the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor, and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi is the associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine. The duo serves as co-directors of the Texas Children's Hospital for Vaccine Development as well.

"Our coronavirus vaccine is designed in Texas and tested in Texas with the utmost priority to ensure it is safe and effective," Bottazzi says in a news release for BCM. "To now see that it will be supported by Texas-based Tito's is a testament that our state will be recognized as being at the forefront of this pandemic, making a difference and reaching all populations locally and globally."

Drs. Hotez and Bottazzi focus on developing vaccines for new or neglected tropical diseases that affect those living in poverty around the world. Along with their partnership with PATH, a global nonprofit organization that will help speed up the vaccine's regulatory phase, the doctors' work from 2011 on SARS is promising and will hopefully help safely and quickly develop a COVID vaccine.

"It's an honor to work with Tito's on this life-saving initiative, which we hope will ultimately lead to a vaccine for America," Hotez says in the release. "Our vision is that it would also advance as a low-cost global health vaccine, now that COVID-19 is racing through Latin American nations, such as Ecuador and Brazil, in addition to South Asia."

Love, Tito's, which is also based in Austin, has contributed to a few other organizations amid the COVID-19 crisis, including: Children of Restaurant Employees (CORE), USBG National Charity Foundation's COVID-19 Relief Campaign, World Central Kitchen, and Southern Smoke Foundation's Emergency Relief Fund, a Houston-based initiative.

"Everything we do at Tito's is rooted in giving back to the communities we serve, and this pandemic is no exception," says Sarah Everett, director of Global Impact and Research at Tito's Handmade Vodka.

"We applaud the worldwide effort to fund and support vaccines that look promising, because we can never know in advance which ones will be effective. We're proud to support Dr. Hotez, Dr. Bottazzi and their team's work to improve humanity's odds of success against COVID-19 and future coronavirus mutations."

Love, Tito's is the nonprofit arm of Tito's Handemade Vodka. Photo via titosvodka.com

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Building Houston

 
 

For over a year now, scientists have been testing wastewater for COVID-19. Now, the public can access that information. Photo via Getty Images

In 2020, a group of researchers began testing Houston's wastewater to collect data to help identify trends at the community level. Now, the team's work has been rounded up to use as an online resource.

The Houston Health Department and Rice University launched the dashboard on September 22. The information comes from samples collected from the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants and many HISD schools.

"This new dashboard is another tool Houstonians can use to gauge the situation and make informed decisions to protect their families," says Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University, in a news release. "A high level of virus in your neighborhood's wastewater means virus is spreading locally and you should be even more stringent about masking up when visiting public places."

The health department, Houston Water, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine originally collaborated on the wastewater testing. Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs, led a part of the research.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in an earlier news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

It's an affordable way to track the virus, says experts. People with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces, according to the release, and by testing the wastewater, the health department can measure important infection rate changes.

The dashboard, which is accessible online now, is color-coded by the level of viral load in wastewater samples, as well as labeled with any recent trend changes. Houstonians can find the interactive COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, vaccination sites, testing sites, and more information at houstonemergency.org/covid19.

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