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Trump announced Google was building a virus screening tool. Then someone had to build it

How a presidential promise launched Verily, an Alphabet-owned health science unit, to the front lines of the pandemic

Google will build a screening tool to assist CDC coronavirus testing, President Trump announced March 12 at the White House. (Video: The Washington Post)

Last week, a team of health science experts within Google parent Alphabet Inc. were exploring ways that software could help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Then came the White House news conference, the California governor’s endorsement, the scramble to build a disease screening website in three days — and on Monday, a crush of publicity around how the site failed to live up to expectations.

In a short period of time, a relatively obscure subsidiary of Alphabet called Verily has become a front line player in the fight against a global pandemic. President Trump’s decree, during a Rose Garden briefing last Friday, that 1,700 engineers at Google were working on a coronavirus test-finding tool that would be ready in a few days sent executives at Verily into a panic, according to two people briefed on the episode.

He was referring to Verily. And they were nowhere close to launching such a tool.

Verily’s rush to build a covid-19 screening tool on the fly underscored how tech companies have been forced to improvise to stay in Trump’s good graces, despite the president’s tendency to make false claims about their expansion plans, take credit for their research efforts and mix up the names of their CEOs.

Despite the White House’s insistence on relying on the private sector for solutions, Verily’s effort shows that Silicon Valley has no easy answers to a global health crisis that threatens to overwhelm U.S. hospitals with patients in the coming weeks.

“At the end of the day Google is not a health care provider,” said Adrian Aoun, a former Google executive who founded the health clinic start-up Forward.

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“The work Verily is doing goes beyond establishing a screening and risk assessment tool,” said Kathleen Parkes, a spokeswoman for Verily. “We opened three sample collection sites in the Bay Area today working with local public health authorities and are working really hard to increase testing capacity.”

Since he took office, Trump has had a tenuous relationship with tech, whose executives have tried to balance their opposition to his policies on immigration and climate change with their desire to preserve a working relationship with the leader of the free world. Apple CEO Tim Cook didn’t correct Trump when the president took credit for opening a Mac factory that predated his presidency or when he mistakenly referred to the executive as “Tim Apple.” Last year, he said wireless providers were investing in 5G networks “at my request” even though they had been building the networks for years.

Tech executives met with Trump last week, part of a series of meetings the president held with industry leaders as the scale of the coronavirus threat in the U.S. became clearer.

Representatives from the tech giant had informally discussed a coronavirus screening project with the White House last week, but had never committed to a timeline on moving forward with the project and were not informed it would be announced publicly by Trump, says a person briefed on the discussions who declined to be identified because the talks were private.

In tweets, blog posts and statements since Trump’s announcement, Google has tried to manage expectations about the project. On Friday evening, after Trump’s announcement, the company put out a statement that for the first time indicated Verily’s involvement. It also brought to light the first discrepancies with what Trump touted: the pilot was only for the Bay Area, and it was in its early stages.

Google is building a coronavirus website, but it doesn’t look anything close to what Trump announced

Google, seeking to placate the administration by not contradicting his announcement, scrambled to put out a statement over the weekend that promised a different national website with information about coronavirus symptoms, the person said. Meanwhile, Verily rushed to complete its test screening site for residents of the Bay Area and put out its own statement confirming its involvement in the project.

Verily has a background in remote diagnostics. Three years ago, the Alphabet unit created a software platform called Project Baseline to run clinical trials on a group of volunteers, who agree to share their medical data with a group of researchers at pharmaceutical companies and research hospitals.

Dr. Adrian Hernandez, Vice Dean for Clinical Research for the Duke University School of Medicine, a participant in Project Baseline, said he met about two weeks ago with Verily’s chief medical officer Jessica Mega, who was already thinking about how the software could be used to assist with the detection of coronavirus.

“The last thing you would want to do is have people who are potentially vulnerable coming into a health care system and be exposed to the risk of a pandemic,” Hernandez said. “All of our clinical trials are trying to do research at home.”

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom joined the fray when he announced on Sunday he had been working closely with Verily for over a week on the project. His announcement appeared to be closely coordinated with the company, which put out its first news release about the site ahead of Newsom’s announcement to say it was collaborating with the governor’s office.

“Because it’s Google, or in this case Verily, and because it was mentioned in the President’s speech, everyone is jumping up and down about it,” said Dr. Robert Wachter, a professor and chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

“But at the end of the day, it just links a questionnaire to testing sites. That’s not a particularly challenging thing to do."

Verily’s news release said the website was only in beta mode, and would start in two San Francisco Bay area counties, San Mateo County and Santa Clara County. The counties constitute the heart of Silicon Valley, where Google is based, and Santa Clara County has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus.

More limitations became clear once it launched late Sunday. It was only in English, required people to log in to their Google account and sign an authorization form that gave Verily permission to share users’ data with a range of health care and technology partners.

Verily’s covid-19 screening process begins with a yes-no question: Are you experiencing severe symptoms? The site won’t make appointments for people who are experiencing severe symptoms — it recommends anyone with shortness of breath, a fever or other “concerning symptoms” seek medical care instead. The idea is to take some pressure off hospitals and health departments by directing people with noncritical issues directly to a testing site, the company said.

If someone is well enough to get a test and willing to log in with a Google account, they have to sign an authorization form and answer more questions before being added to a queue. The company says all appointments require a callback to schedule an appointment, and if the schedule is full for the day, users might get a call the following day.

By midday Monday the site said it was “unable to schedule more appointments at this time.”

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“The tests are being processed by a variety of testing facilities that have adequate quality to return reliable results within several days within a pre-specified protocol,” said Verily’s Hutman.

A range of tech companies are attempting to help alleviate the problem of screening and monitoring patients with mild cases of the virus, so that health care workers can focus their resources on the severe cases. Forward began offering members of its service coronavirus testing last week, and provided several people who tested positive for the virus with sensors to let doctors measure blood pressure and heart rate remotely, Aoun said.

The company is expanding the tests this week to anyone who goes to one of its walk-in clinics in cities across the U.S. and pays a fee.

On March 13, Oscar, a health insurance company co-founded by Joshua Kushner, the brother of Jared Kushner, who is married to Ivanka Trump, launched its own online portal to help people locate testing centers for covid-19 and assess their risk on contracting the virus.

Jackie Kahn, a spokeswoman for Oscar, said the the portal now connects the public to over 400 testing sites in 15 states.

Oscar also has a connection to Google. In 2018, Alphabet invested $375 million in Oscar, giving the Silicon Valley giant a roughly 10 percent stake in the start-up, and Salar Kamangar, a senior executive at Google, joined Oscar’s board. Verily invested in Oscar the previous year.

About 2,500 people are currently part of Verily’s Project Baseline health study, which aims to lower the cost and hassle of clinical research trials by constantly monitoring a group of test subjects at home, instead of in labs, said Dr. Hernandez.

Project Baseline patients are monitored around the clock using smart wristwatches and sleep sensors. Patients send stool samples through the mail to have their microbiomes analyzed.

Volunteers give Verily consent to have their data shared with all of the researchers involved in Project Baseline. The researchers agree to provide patients with medical results of any tests that are conducted, Dr. Hernandez said.

Verily’s coronavirus screening tool can only be accessed by users who agreed to sign in with a Google account and give the company permission to share their data with a wide range of partners, including health care professionals, public health authorities and tech companies such as Google.

Verily’s interest in users’ information doesn’t stop after they schedule a test. The company can get people’s test results back from the labs, with permission, according to Verily spokeswoman Rachel Ford Hutman. When a person finishes booking a coronavirus test, Verily says it will ask if they’d like to opt into its ProjectBaseline “community,” sharing information about their health with the company. That information can then be used in research studies conduced by Verily and its partners. According to Verily, the service is not covered by a federal law known as HIPAA, short for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

On its privacy policy, Verily said it would not link any data collected from the survey with someone’s Google account — an important disclaimer for any users worried about the data mining practices of the world’s largest online ad company, says Robert Gellman, a data privacy consultant.

“I wouldn’t want the information that is disclosed under these sort of emergency conditions to leak over to their regular files and be used in any other way,” Gellman said.

As a patient filling out this form, “I would have to swallow hard because it’s Google,” he says. “But what they have promised is what they should have promised.”