On Saturday night, Google outlined everything it does in response to the coronavirus outbreak – after days of confusion over how the search giant is working with the White House in the face of a growing public health crisis.
As Google's official PR has described in a number of tweets, at least three different projects are in the works. First, Alphabet's medical subsidiary, Verily, is building a system that can be used to test people for testing, as reported on Friday. However, the project is at an early stage of development, and current plans are limited to a pilot project in the Bay Area, far from Trump's national test system.
At the same time, Google is now saying that it is partnering with the government to "create a nationwide website that contains information about COVID-19 symptoms, risk, and test information," something to what Trump described at the press conference There is still no closer to a website that makes tests easier and delivers results. In addition to these two projects, Google also transmits verified information (usually from the CDC or WHO) through Search, YouTube and its various other web outlets.
As Google put it, these projects were all President Trump spoke about in his confusing announcement on Friday. "We are fully focused and continue to work with the United States government to curb the spread of COVID-19, educate citizens, and protect the health of our communities," the company said.
While Google's efforts are ambitious, they lag far behind the extensive test system that President Trump described on Friday, let alone the 1,700 Google engineers who are said to have worked on the system. And it is still far from clear what the president was referring to when he described a Google-created website that "would determine whether a test is warranted and should facilitate testing in a nearby convenient location."
Recent reports suggest that the idea of such a website was part of a messed up communication line between White House consultant Jared Kushner and his various contacts in the technology world. The New York Times reported that Kushner was in close contact with Andy Conrad, Verily's CEO, who described Kushner's triage project before the meeting. The idea of 1,700 Google engineers seems to come from a volunteer sheet that was distributed at a Google all-hands meeting. But while these 1,700 Googlers volunteered to help, this work would have been in addition to their daily chores. It is unclear whether volunteers actually contributed to the project.
The resulting announcement completely surprised the company. A senior White House official told the Washington Post that much of the confusion was due to plans being withdrawn too soon when the government hurried to deliver news that would calm financial markets.
"None of the announcements were ready for prime time," the Post official said. "People wanted to announce news."
The chart presented at the press conference on Friday, which promised a website where patients could be screened, hospitals recommended, coordinated with laboratories, and test results displayed, also appeared to be Kushner's work. It doesn't reflect Verily's project, but it raises expectations of the broad role that Google could play in testing potentially infected patients.
However, the process is very similar to a website launched by another Kushner affiliate on the same day. On Friday, Oscar Health announced a new function to search for test centers to be linked to the platform's telemedicine services. The steps outlined in the press release are very similar to the flowchart. Both refer to the test subjects as "consumers" and not as "patients".
Joshua Kushner (brother of Jared) is a major investor in Oscar Health, and the Times reported that Jared was closely associated with Joshua's father-in-law ahead of the announcement.
Even so, Oscar Health denied any involvement in the announcement or any link between his new location service and the wider efforts of the White House. "We did not contact the White House ahead of Friday's press conference to contribute to their flowchart or tooling idea," a representative told The Verge. "We take the pandemic seriously and want to do everything we can to ensure that our members and Americans are generally safe and healthy."
U.S. corona virus testing remains well behind other countries and is a major challenge for anyone trying to contain the virus. According to CDC data, the agency has processed fewer than 20,000 copies since the outbreak began. South Korea, a much smaller country, has tested more than 248,000 people.