President Donald Trump announced Friday that Google is helping the government develop a website that will help streamline testing for COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus. Trump said during a press conference that the website will “determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.” As it turns out, that was far from the truth.
Trump stated that Google has 1,700 engineers working on the website, and that it will be “very quickly done, unlike websites of the past.” That appears to be the number of Googlers who had volunteered to work on the project, not the number actually working on it.
Google later tweeted a statement from Verily, a life sciences research organization under the umbrella of Alphabet — Google’s parent company — stating that the organization is “developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing” and that it is in “early stages.” We’re not yet sure how that aligns with Trump’s statement that the project would be done “very quickly.” Verily did also confirm that some Google employees had volunteered on the project.
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
The story developed, however, when The Verge reported that the website was not intended to be a public website, but a triage site for health workers to use. Later, Wired published a report saying that, according to sources at Google, the company was blindsided by Trump’s statement. It’s an unsettling development in the ongoing saga of the federal government’s response to the outbreak, one marred by inconsistent messaging and inefficient procedures.
According to The Verge’s report, the triage site will now be available, but will only be able to direct users to certain test sites in the Bay Area, at least for the time being.
We’ve reached out to Google for more details and will update this story when we hear back.
The announcement came as part of Trump’s official declaration of a state of national emergency, an act that frees up federal funding for states to fight the coronavirus. Under a 1988 law called the Stafford Act, in an emergency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can distribute money from its funds to state governments. With Trump’s declaration, states will have access to up to $50 billion in funding to curtail the outbreak.
Trump was joined on stage by Dr. Deborah Birx, a public health expert who has played a major role in the fight against AIDS. In 2014, President Barack Obama appointed her as the United States’ global AIDS coordinator, and Trump appointed her as the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator.
According to Birx, the site would allow users to list their symptoms, then direct them to a testing site nearby if it’s likely that they have COVID-19. However, there is currently no evidence that the flowchart used in the conference bears any relation to the tool Verily is developing.
Since the outbreak began, the disease has spread across the world, with more than 132,000 confirmed cases and nearly 5,000 deaths as of March 13, according to the World Health Organization’s latest situation report. The virus has staggered healthcare systems in many major countries and led authorities worldwide to discourage any large gatherings of people, including schools.
In the U.S. especially, the response has been slow, with drastic shortages of testing kits. Estimates suggest fewer than 10,000 Americans have been tested, significantly fewer than the 20,000 per day tested in South Korea.
This story has been updated to reflect that Google is not intending on building a public website.