The president said the site, which is supposed to direct people to drive-through test sites, should be ready soon; Google seemed less clear about that.
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is working with the White House and private companies to create a website that will help Americans find screening tests for the Covid-19 coronavirus.
Plans for the site are being overseen by Verily, an Alphabet subsidiary that focuses on health care and life science.
The White House said the site is meant to steer Americans who need testing to drive-through clinics that are supposed to start popping up around the US in the parking lots of retailers like Target and Walmart, which are also working on the effort.
But messaging from Alphabet reps, after President Donald Trump and others described the effort at a White House press conference, stressed that the project the company is working on is in its early stages and will initially be offered to residents in and around San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
At the press conference, Trump said Google had “1,700 engineers working on this right now.”
Trump didn’t say when the site would be up, but Vice President Mike Pence said that, by Sunday evening, the White House “will be able to give specific guidance on when the website will be available.”
UPDATE: Asked again about Google’s plans to launch a site at a press conference on Saturday, Pence said Google had told them the site would launch Monday, and that the White House would have detailed information about the site and testing plan at 5pm Sunday.
Recode hasn’t yet been able to verify that with Alphabet or Verily reps, or anything else about how the site is supposed to work — including any efforts Verily and the associated companies will use to protect the privacy of the site’s users.
It’s possible that the White House announcement took Verily and Google by surprise. About an hour after Trump talked about the website, Google sent out a statement, attributed to Verily, that said the company was in “early stages” on “a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing” and that it would start using it in the Bay Area before rolling it out widely.
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
Debbie Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, held up a flowchart at the press conference that was meant to illustrate the steps users will take to get tested, but didn’t go into any detail. The chart appears to indicate that users will find their test results on the same site they used to see if they needed a test.
“I want to thank Google. Google is going to develop a website — it’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past — to determine if a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location,” Trump said. “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.”
On Thursday, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai sent out a company-wide email calling for volunteers to “assist in the effort to test people for Covid-19;” he said the idea was to “develop a pathway for public health and healthcare 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. … Verily is part of the Alphabet family and could use our help in the coming days and weeks.”
That effort seems separate from a Verily project to build a physical patch that could detect signs of a fever and transmit that health data to a person’s phone. Pichai mentioned that effort last week in a blog post about various efforts his company had taken to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
Here’s Pichai’s memo asking his employees to help with the Verily website.
Yesterday at TGIF, someone had a question about whether Verily could assist in the effort to test people for COVID-19. I know we are all looking for ways to help right now, so I checked in with their team to see if they could use support from Google and our other bets for a new effort being planned.
The good news is that a planning effort is underway to use the expertise in life sciences and clinical research of Verily in partnership with Google to aid in the COVID-19 testing effort in the US. As more test kits becomes available, the planners are looking to develop a pathway for public health and healthcare 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.
Verily is part of the Alphabet family and could use our help in the coming days and weeks to respond as quickly as possible to the rapidly evolving situation of the COVID-19 pandemic. For those interested in volunteering for this effort, please complete this form and they will be in touch.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Debbie Birx said the Google site would be available on Sunday.
Author: Peter Kafka