Google is not working with the US government in building a nationwide website to help people determine whether and how to get a novel coronavirus test, despite what President Donald Trump said in the course of issuing an emergency declaration for the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, a much smaller trial website made by another division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is going up. It will only be able to direct people to testing facilities in the Bay Area.
More than an hour after Trump’s press conference, a Google communications Twitter account passed along the following statement from Verily, which is a different company inside the Alphabet corporate umbrella:
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.
Carolyn Wang, communications lead for Verily, told The Verge that the “triage website” was initially only going to be made available to health care workers instead of the general public. Now that it has been announced the way it was, however, anybody will be able to visit it, she said. But the tool will only be able to direct people to “pilot sites” for testing in the Bay Area, though Wang says Verily hopes to expand it beyond California “over time.”
The triage site should be put live within a few days, and it will be hosted at Project Baseline, the Verily website where people can sign up to take part in clinical trials. That’s a seemingly odd place for the triage tool to live, but Wang says that Project Baseline already has certain necessary tools like an informed consent agreement, so it makes sense to put it there.
“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 at the press conference. “We have many, many locations behind us, by the way. We cover this country and large parts of the world, by the way. We’re not gonna be talking about the world right now, but we cover very, very strongly our country. Stores in virtually every location. Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now. They have made tremendous progress.”
As for the 1,700 Google engineers Trump referenced in the press conference, that appears to be related to a call for volunteers Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai put out in a company-wide memo earlier this week.
In all, the difference between the reality of what is being built and what was promised during the press conference is very large.
Debbie Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, showed a flowchart during the press conference that explained what the proposed functionality of the website would be. Nobody from Alphabet or Google spoke at the event, although many executives from other health and retail companies did.
As Birx described the website, citizens would be able to enter their symptoms and, depending on what the results are, be directed to a “drive thru” testing facility. That same website would apparently also be where people can go to find their results.
Unfortunately, we don’t know much about the website Birx described — not its URL, when it will launch, or how it will work. The only thing we do know is that Google did not build it; it is being built by another division of Alphabet instead.
Alongside the website, the president’s emergency declaration should open up to $50 billion in funding, new testing facilities, and new partnerships with private companies to provide testing services. You can read more on the government’s response in our story.
Update March 13th, 5:30PM ET: Updated with Google’s tweet
Update March 13th, 6:15PM ET: Added clarification that Google is not building the website President Trump described