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Update: On March 15, Verily, the life sciences division of Google parent Alphabet, announced it is developing tools for testing for COVID-19 in collaboration with the California governor's office.
President Trump picked a Silicon Valley ally Friday to try to get a handle on the coronavirus pandemic: Google. Whether the tech giant was prepared to be thrust into the spotlight to solve a looming public health crisis, well, that wasn't as clear.
With financial markets tanking, the nation's most valuable companies going remote and medical concerns mounting about inadequate COVID-19 testing,Trump announced that Google has been tapped to build a website to help determine if and where people should get tested for the virus. The endeavor was announced at a Friday Rose Garden news conference, during which Trump declared a national state of emergency and said he was enlisting Walmart, Roche, CVS and other corporations to help respond to the virus and public anxiety.
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"I want to thank Google. Google is helping to develop a website," the president said. Then, in an apparent swipe at the disastrous launch of healthcare.gov under former President Barack Obama, Trump said, "It's gonna be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past." He said the website would serve to "determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location."
"Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now. They've made tremendous progress," Trump said. "Our overriding goal is to stop the spread of the virus." The White House's coronavirus response coordinator, Deborah Birx, held up a flowchart showing how users would be screened for risk factors.
It was not immediately clear, though, whether Google, whose representatives did not attend the news conference, had been contracted to build any website, or if the company — which this week ordered North America employees to work from home — would donate time philanthropically. An internal memo from CEO Sundar Pichai, reported by CNBC, suggested that Verily, the life sciences wing of Google parent company Alphabet, was contributing technical support.
In a statement posted to a Twitter account for Google's communications team more than an hour after Trump's speech, the company said, "We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for COVID-19 testing. Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time." That appeared to be a far cry from what Trump described.
Statement from Verily: "We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing. Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time.
— Google Communications (@Google_Comms) March 13, 2020
Carolyn Wang, communications lead for Verily, told The Verge it had been developing a "triage website" for health care workers, not the general public, but will now switch gears in light of the announcement.
Another Verily spokeswoman, Kathleen Parkes, told Protocol, "Our aspiration is for the triage tool to be used much more broadly. Initially, we're linking it with several sites in the Bay Area to test and iterate." She said Verily will work with Quest Diagnostics and Labcorp, which are also helping to bolster and speed up testing.
One former Google engineer told Protocol that it seemed unlikely the company would suddenly dedicate so many engineers to one nascent project. In the past, the person said, the company has dedicated personnel from multiple departments to special projects. Spokespeople for Google and Verily would not comment on Trump's 1,700 figure. LinkedIn profiles suggest that Verily has 500 to 750 total employees.
Ultimately, Trump's nationally televised declaration about using technology to save the nation from a global pandemic — coupled with Google's near-silence on the matter — raised more questions than it answered. How will a website help if there aren't enough medical supplies on the ground? Who will make sure sensitive health data is secured? Did the president simply misrepresent what was going on, as he has done many times in the past?
Given concerns about overloading hospitals and drawing resources away from the most vulnerable patients, any functioning channel to help avoid unnecessary tests would be a good idea, said Emily Evans, a health care policy expert and managing director at Hedgeye Risk Management of Stamford, Connecticut. But the details of how a system works are critical to make sure people aren't mistakenly turned away.
"What does the website look like? What does it ask?" Evans said. "Does it say something like, 'You don't fit the criteria for a test, but check back in a week'?"
Some critics questioned the timing and style of the announcement, saying that Trump's remarks amounted to a Google advertisement during an address about a health crisis — a message that could be helpful for a company wrestling with mounting regulatory scrutiny and tension within its global workforce.
Financiers, at least, were encouraged: Stocks surged Friday afternoon (Alphabet was up more than 9% for the day) on the news that large businesses were coming into the fold to address the virus. Analysts said it made sense for an administration that has been criticized for its sluggish, sometimes contradictory response to a national emergency to seek outside expertise, regardless of major court cases and backlash that Google may be facing from critics, including Trump.
"I view these as separate issues," said Dan Ives, a technology analyst and managing director of equity research for Wedbush Securities of Los Angeles. "This is a national emergency, and Google recognizes the resources and innovation it brings to Americans in a time of crisis."
In announcing the effort with Google, Trump was able to not-so-subtly criticize past large-scale government tech initiatives, including the healthcare.gov debacle that came after Obama's Affordable Care Act was signed into law. The website built by a web of federal contractors crashed, lagged and confused millions of consumers before engineers from Google, Oracle and several smaller upstarts were brought in to salvage it.
The memo to employees from Pichai said that patients could be directed to Verily's existing Project Baseline website, billed as a "map of human health" to aid in connecting people to clinical trials, according to CNBC.
"As more test kits become available, the planners are looking to develop a pathway for public health and health care agencies to direct people to our Baseline website, where individuals who are at higher risk can be directed to testing sites based on the latest guidance from public health authorities," Pichai said in the memo.
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Birx said at the White House on Friday that the website would include educational information about COVID-19 symptoms and precautions, as well as a form for individuals to input information about their condition and receive testing recommendations.
Other tech companies also touted their efforts to respond to the virus. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said the company would match up to $10 million in donations to the World Health Organization's COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. Salesforce committed $1.5 million to two different funds. Last week, Pichai said his company was contributing money, time and resources, but he did not foreshadow any announcement with Trump.
Trump said Friday he is also working with companies including Roche to make available hundreds of thousands of additional COVID-19 tests by early next week. The state-of-emergency declaration could also unlock some $50 billion in federal funding for state operations centers, drive-through testing and other measures. For those following the medical evolution of the pandemic, ensuring adequate testing — through websites or otherwise — will be crucial. But it's equally important, Evans said, to exercise restraint as the virus spreads.
"There are a good many tests being done using precious resources," Evans said. "We should endeavor to limit those if possible."
Lauren Hepler ( @lahepler) is a former reporter for Protocol covering how people live and work in Silicon Valley. She previously covered development, energy, and tech for The New York Times, The Guardian, the LA Times, the Silicon Valley Business Journal, and others. Lauren can be reached at email@example.com (just ask for Signal), and you can share information with her anonymously via Protocol's SecureDrop. She grew up in Ohio and lives in Oakland.
Levi Sumagaysay (@levisu) is a former Silicon Valley reporter at Protocol. Previously, she was a tech reporter at The San Jose Mercury News, where she covered everything from artificial intelligence to IPOs, tech culture, news about big tech, and more. Levi has edited or written technology news since the first dot-com boom, and was for a time the writer of Good Morning Silicon Valley, one of the earliest tech blogs/newsletters.