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.

Houston can expect the new vaccine in the next week. WPA Pool / Getty Images

Here's when Houston can expect the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine

coming soon

Texas can expect to receive the first 200,000 doses of the coveted Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this week. The company announced that it has started the rollout process on March 1 — after the FDA approved its Emergency Use Authorization.

The Center for Disease Control gave the developer, Janssen Pharmaceutical, the final greenlight Sunday, February 28.

What does that mean for Houston? Mayor Sylvester Turner said the Houston Health Department is also anticipated to be on the list to receive Johnson & Johnson doses within the next seven days.

"That will be a game changer," Turner said at an event on February 28 afternoon. "There will be more vaccines available in a shorter period of time. We anticipate that we will probably get a shipment in sometime this week that will add to the Pfizer [doses] that we are using at NRG."

Turner said other clinics with the Houston Health Department have been administering the Moderna vaccine.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine does have noticeable differences from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, experts said.

The MRNA vaccines each require two shots which are usually delivered weeks apart and stored in freezers. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single shot that can be stored in a refrigerator for up to three months at 35 to 46 degrees.

However, Johnson & Johnson does not have as much of the COVID-19 vaccine produced as originally anticipated. ABC13 confirmed 3.9 million doses will be shipped out across the country this week. Johnson & Johnson announced roughly an additional 16 million doses by the end of the month.

"In the next few weeks, it won't have much of any impact because they only have at least three or four million doses available, and that's disappointing news," says Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. "In the longer term, over the next few months, it's really important because we need a greater vaccine supply. We are not going to get there with the two MRNA vaccines. We need probably up to five different vaccines in order to vaccinate the American people."

Recently, there has been a decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations and COVID-19 cases reported statewide. As of Sunday, about 5,700 Texans are in the hospital due to COVID-19, which is half the number of hospitalization in the beginning of the month.

Infectious disease epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Troisi says it's important for people to not let their guard down and that people should get tested if they have been in a high-exposure situation, or if they have been in direct contact with someone who has tested positive.

"Get vaccinated, don't worry about what vaccine it is," Dr. Troisi notes. "It's true that unfortunately there are not as many doses right now of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as we have hoped, but the company is saying that by the end of June, they will have a 100 million doses, and that's into 100 million people because you don't need two doses.

"So, we expect to have 600 million doses of the other two vaccines, that's 300 million people," she continues. "That should be enough for everyone who wants the vaccine to be able to get it. With one caveat and that is as of right now we do not have a vaccine for children under age 16. Those trials are going on, hopefully as we go throughout the year there will be a vaccine licensed to 12 year-olds and then maybe going down to 8 years or older."

For more details on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine rollout, visit the FDA's website.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap. For more on this story, visit our news partner ABC13.

The City of Houston is making it easier to get free COVID-19 vaccinations. Photo courtesy of ABC13

City of Houston launches online registration for free COVID vaccinations

calling the shots

Since COVID-19 vaccinations arrived in Houston, locals have been clamoring for the inoculations. Now, the City of Houston has made it easier for those at highest risk to receive the injections.

The Houston Health Department launched online registration on January 4 for residents at highest risk of coronavirus disease to schedule appointments to receive free vaccinations. (A Spanish version is anticipated to launch as well, according to the city.)

Those in Phase 1B of the State of Texas' vaccine distribution are advised to use the new service. This includes those 65 and older or 18 and older with at least one chronic medical condition putting them at increased risk of severe illness or death.

Frontline healthcare workers — classified as Phase 1A in the distribution plan — who have yet to receive the vaccine also are eligible to sign up to get the shot through the health department, per a press release. The department currently offers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. More information can also be found here.

Meanwhile, appointments are also available through the health department's COVID-19 call center by calling 832-393-4220. The call center is open Monday through Saturday from 7:30 am to 4 pm and until 5 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Users will receive an appointment time and the location of the vaccination clinic site during the registration process. Staffers will screen visitors and direct them to a secure area to receive the vaccination and monitor them for any adverse reaction for 15 minutes, according to the city.

"The Houston Health Department is doing a phenomenal job getting the vaccine directly to people," said Mayor Sylvester Turner. "The new online registration, in addition to the call center, will make the process more efficient. While there is great public demand for the COVID-19 vaccine, there is also a lot of hesitancy. I understand the concerns, but I encourage all eligible Houstonians to get vaccinated to help stop the spread of the deadly virus."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.