Sunday, September 27, 2020

The White House says Google is building a coronavirus testing website, but details are fuzzy

Mar 14. 2020
File photo by Syndication Washington Post, Bloomberg
File photo by Syndication Washington Post, Bloomberg
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By The Washington Post · Heather Kelly · NATIONAL, BUSINESS, TECHNOLOGY, HEALTH 

SAN FRANCISCO - The White House is turning to Google to build a new screening website for anyone wanting information on how to get tested for the coronavirus, President Donald Trump said on Friday. However, there are some discrepancies between the White House and Google versions of what the site will be able to do, where it will do it, and when.

The site will actually be built by Verily, the life sciences division of Google parent company Alphabet that focuses on research and development around health issues, the company confirmed.

The president said 1,700 engineers were working on the triage website and that it would be done "very quickly." Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, said they wanted to bring it "across the continent." Vice President Mike Pence said they would have more information about when the website would be available starting Sunday evening.

"I want to thank Google, 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," said Trump during a news conference to declare the coronavirus a national emergency.

But in a short statement shared on Twitter an hour and a half after the announcement, Verily said the website was only in "the early stages of development." The tool will start in the San Francisco Bay area first with "the hope of expanding it more broadly over time." 

According to Dr. Birx, who held up a flow chart to illustrate how the site would work, it will start with a survey that asks people about their symptoms and risk factors. If it determines they should get a test, it will direct them to the nearest drive-through testing center.

Verily spokesperson Emily Friedman said that the site would work with several test locations in the Bay Area while it is being tested, and that Verily is working with testing companies Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp on the project. Andrew Conrad, Verily's CEO, used to be the chief science officer at LabCorp.

As first reported by the Verge, the tool will be built on Verily's Project Baseline, which collects health data from volunteers. The Verily site wasn't supposed to be for the general public at first, but the company has changed that plan since the announcement.

"We were intending to start with the highest at-risk populations, which includes health care workers, but were not planning only for them," said Friedman. "Our aspiration is for the triage tool to be used much more broadly." 

Verily started inside Google X, Google's wing for experimental projects. It became its own division called Verily in 2015. One of its most high-profile projects was an effort to develop glucose-level sensing contact lenses that the company said it hoped "could someday lead to a new way for people with diabetes to manage their disease." The project was shuttered in 2018, after researchers couldn't find a strong correlation between glucose levels in teardrops and those in blood.

Verily did not provide any details on how it would handle any sensitive health data it collects. Google's handling of health information has raised privacy concerns in the past. In November, 2019, it said it was partnering with health-care provider Ascension to collect and store personal data for millions of patients, including full names, dates of birth and clinical histories, in order to make smarter recommendations to physicians.

It would not be the first time President Trump has misrepresented the work of a tech company. In November, 2019, he took credit for Apple opening a manufacturing plant in Texas. The company had been building computers in a plant belonging to one of its contractors there since 2013, and while it does have plans for a new Austin campus in 2022, it will not build hardware.

 

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