UPDATED: Donald Trump claimed Google was assisting in the U.S. government’s efforts to address the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak by developing a site “very quickly” to refer Americans to locations where they could be scheduled for drive-through testing and get the test results. But there were multiple inaccuracies in what Trump announced Friday at a press conference, as Google later clarified.
First, the project is not being carried out by Google per se, but by Verily — the life sciences division of Alphabet, which is Google’s parent company. More important than that technicality, the Verily coronavirus test-referral tool is only in “early stages of development” with a test slated to roll out initially in the San Francisco Bay Area, not broadly across the U.S., according to the company. At some point, Verily said, it may expand the tool more widely.
Trump inaccurately characterized Google’s participation in the coronavirus response as part of his remarks declaring an national emergency and committing $50 billion in funding to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump said, “Google is helping to develop a website. It’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past, to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.” It’s unclear what “websites of the past” he was referring to. Trump also said of the initiative, “We have many, many locations behind us, by the way. We cover… this country in large part.”
In addition, Trump claimed that “Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now. They’ve made tremendous progress. Our overriding goal is to stop the spread of the virus and to help all Americans who have been impacted by this.” That’s not true, either: That’s evidently a reference to the 1,700 Google employees who merely volunteered to help on such a project, per the Verge.
In a statement issued more than an hour and a half following Trump’s remarks, Verily 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. We appreciate the support of government officials and industry partners and thank the Google engineers who have volunteered to be part of this effort.”
There were no executives from Google or Verily at the White House’s press conference Friday. Google senior execs were caught off guard by Trump’s statements and were surprised he mentioned the project, Wired reported.
CNBC reported that Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent a memo to employees Thursday in which he said Verily was working with government officials to point high-risk individuals to Project Baseline, a service set up to make it “easy and engaging for people to contribute to the map of human health and participate in clinical research.” According to Pichai’s memo, the Baseline site would direct people who need to be tested for coronavirus to “testing sites based on the latest guidance from public health authorities.”
Verily initially intended the Baseline site only for health care workers, per the New York Times, but after Trump’s statement the company will open the site to the general public. Again, for now, it will only refer site visitors to testing facilities in the Bay Area with the potential to roll out to other areas.
Speaking at the White House press conference Friday, Deborah Birx, the Trump administration’s coronavirus response coordinator, said that by Sunday evening (March 15) officials will provide information on when the website will be available. After filling out a questionnaire and entering their symptoms, site visitors will be told whether or not a test is indicated, according to Birx. If they qualify for testing, they will be directed to parking lots of participating Walmart, Target, CVS or Walgreens stores for a “drive-through” test, which will be processed by a lab within 24-36 hours.
Updated 3/13 2:45 p.m. PT: Added statement from Alphabet’s Verily that it (not Google) is “in the early stages” of developing a tool to refer people to coronavirus test sites in the San Francisco Bay Area (not nationwide).