Monday, April 6, 2020
  Community, Research

By Maria Elena Hernandez

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – The UTRGV Center for Vector-Borne Disease, a multidisciplinary research group founded in 2018 at UTRGV to study parasites, viruses and bacteria, has been certified under CLIA as the UT Health RGV Clinical Lab specifically for COVID-19 testing purposes. 

The center – which normally focuses on viruses like Zika that are transmitted through insect or other arthropod bites – now is helping with COVID-19 testing, which the UTRGV School of Medicine’s clinical practice, UT Health RGV, started March 30 with testing sites in Brownsville and Edinburg.

“This was not something we expected to do,” said Dr. John Thomas, UTRGV assistant professor of biology and a founding member of the UTRGV Center for Vector-Borne Disease who is now directing the Clinical Lab’s operations.

“The medical school called me a couple weeks ago and asked if I could help them prepare samples for shipment to an external diagnostic lab, so they could get tested for coronavirus. And that request somehow turned into, ‘Well, could you do the testing?’”

The lab has been certified as a clinical lab (CLIA) through an emergency waiver approved by the state’s Health and Human Services Commission.

It has an Applied Biosystems 7500 Fast Dx, a diagnostic machine that detects the Zika virus and other viral agents. The machine requires specialized training, and the center owns the only one south of San Antonio, Thomas said. “We just made a few changes to our protocols and started doing COVID-19 testing,” he said.

Thomas set up teams to work on the two parts involved in the screenings – extracting the RNA and running the Applied Biosystems 7500 Fast Dx.

“The first part is actually extracting the coronavirus genetic material from the swab after it’s been placed in somebody's nose,” Thomas said. “It's a very complex process.”

He has seven highly trained graduate students working on that process.

“My graduate students, because we do so much work with Zika and dengue and other viruses… they've had a lot of practice already. They’ve already learned these skills from doing their graduate projects,” he said.

After verifying the purity and amount of RNA extracted, that team hands off the sample to the people running the Applied Biosystems 7500 Fast Dx.

Juan Garcia, a UTRGV graduate student from Edinburg majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology, is one of the people trained to use the machine. He manages the lab, and Thomas credits Garcia for directing the student teams.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to directly contribute to one of the most significant events in our lifetime affecting populations throughout the globe,” he said.

Garcia said the work is especially important since most of the students working in the lab are from the Rio Grande Valley.

“This allows Dr. Thomas' lab to truly give back to the community during this time of concern and uncertainty,” he said.

Thomas said the switch to COVID-19 screening was a lot of work but potentially critical to the community.

“The sooner we can identify somebody as being positive for COVID-19, the faster we can intervene and lessen their opportunity to be able to infect other people,” Thomas said. “We want to make sure our community is going to be safe and protected,” he said. “I don’t think anyone else but UTRGV and the UTRGV School of Medicine could have been in a position to come in and set up the system so quickly, and make it work for the Valley.”

In the first week of testing, Thomas and UT Health RGV tested 338 people for COVID-19 across the two drive-thru sites, one in Edinburg and one in Brownsville.

People who feel they need to be tested for COVID-19 at UT Health RGV must first complete a mandatory phone screening by calling 1-833-UTRGVMD. UT Health RGV now offers the option to complete a form online to request a COVID-19 phone screening.

To learn more about the UT Health RGV Clinic Lab, visit

UT Health RGV Clinical Lab
UT Health RGV Clinical Lab (Photo by David Pike)


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.