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How a small health tech startup beat Alphabet with a coronavirus screening tool

It didn't take 1,700 engineers to build a symptoms checker that could help save lives.

Screenshot of the coronavirus checker website

A new site from a startup called Vital lets consumers assess their risk of COVID-19.

Screenshot: C19check.com

On March 13, President Trump seemingly shocked Alphabet by announcing to the world that Google was working on a screening tool for the coronavirus. He said the company had 1,700 engineers working on it and something would be up "very quickly." The following Monday, Verily, Google's life-sciences sister company, released a screening tool for parts of the Bay Area, and rather quickly hit capacity. And if you were showing signs for the virus, it wasn't even very helpful.

But a new site, a collaboration between Emory University in Atlanta and the health software company Vital, aims to help where Verily's site has so far stumbled. Together, they're launching Coronavirus Checker, a site that uses current clinical guidelines and simple language to help people figure out if they're truly at risk.


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Vital's CEO Aaron Patzer, who previously founded Mint, told Protocol that back in late February, he was first inspired to look into building a tool like this. The company's main software offering is an AI tool that helps manage patient flow in emergency rooms, and it's mainly being used in the Atlanta area. "I could see this coming," Patzer said, adding that the infection numbers in the U.S. are likely lagging "three to seven days" behind actual figures, given the amount of testing that's been done to date. He said he expected there to be some tools out there — well before Google was even brought up by the president. "There was nothing, there were no tools," he said.

Even after Verily launched its screening tool, Patzer was underwhelmed. "We were shocked. Google barely had anything," he said.

Vital's 20-odd person team set on the task of helping to "flatten the curve" — an increasingly common expression used to describe efforts to ease the potential strain COVID-19 could put on countries' medical systems. Many of the components in Vital's system were already built, Patzer said, and were already on a HIPAA-compliant platform, given the software the company usually builds, which helped speed up the process. The actual data for the quiz in the system comes from the constantly updated CDC guidelines, as well as the SORT algorithm, originally designed for screening for swine flu back in 2009. "It's gone through many, many months of rigor," Patzer said.

The system categorizes people into three broad categories — low, medium and high risk — and will recommend next steps accordingly. If you're low or medium risk, it may well tell you to self-isolate or follow up with a doctor, and if you're at a high risk of having the virus, it'll tell you to seek immediate medical attention. It's also written in plain English, instead of doctor-speak; rather than asking your BMI, it asks if you wear shirts larger than a XXL.

The checker asks for users' ZIP codes to help figure out if there are unreported hot spots of coronavirus, and the data will be made available to public-health officials and epidemiologists. The site should be light enough to avoid crashing out, Patzer said, unlike many other sites that have been struggling under the weight of coronavirus traffic. The algorithm actually runs in JavaScript on a device's browser, so even if the company's servers go down, users should still be able to complete the quiz, Patzer said. "We should be able to handle literally millions of people per day," he added.

Patzer puts Vital's ability to put out a comprehensive screening tool before any of the big tech companies down to the company's size, expertise and connections. Patzer's sister, Rachel Patzer, is an epidemiologist at Emory, and his co-founder, Justin Schrager, is the head of Emergency Medicine at Emory Hospital Group — and just happens to be Patzer's brother-in-law. Emory also frequently works with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as it's just down the road.

The Vital team didn't need 1,700 engineers to spin up the project over the last few weeks, and being able to communicate in a close-knit team that could reuse work they'd already built likely helped as well.

"We basically built what Trump said Google built," Patzer said.


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Over the last couple of days, the site has been tested at Emory and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where the checker is going through a review process. In the next few days, Patzer's team plans to roll the service out in several other languages, and provide email or text-message followups to remind people to keep checking their symptoms.

Verily declined to comment.

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Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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Image: Adobe

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