Two days after President Donald Trump announced that Google was racing to build a site to help Americans find coronavirus testing, people are still confused about what’s actually going on. In the aftermath of the announcement, reports emerged that Google was not fully aware of the plan Trump said the company was participating in. Given the threat the novel coronavirus poses to the US, this is not a good sign.
Trump said at a Sunday press conference, his earlier comments about Google had been “substantiated” and thanked “the head of Google, a great gentleman.” A few hours later, a site made by Google’s sister company went live with a tool for coronavirus risk screening that directed residents of two counties in Northern California to test centers. It’s increasingly clear, nevertheless, that Google itself is not building the website that Trump described last week, and on Sunday night, Here’s what’s really going on:
Google does have a plan for responding to the coronavirus, but it’s not what the president said it was. Rather than creating a site that guides people to testing locations, Google is building something much simpler. The company announced on Saturday that it is “partnering with the US Government in developing a nationwide website that includes information about COVID-19 symptoms, risk, and testing information.”
The site Trump promised on Friday sounds much more like what’s being developed by the life sciences research company Verily, which is related to Google but is a distinct company. Verily said on Friday after Trump’s speech that it “is in the early stages of development” of a tool to triage potential coronavirus patients and “is planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time.” Verily used to be a subsidiary of Google, but now both Google and Verily are subsidiaries of their parent company Alphabet. Since Google and Verily are separate companies, it’s hard to know how closely the two are collaborating on the efforts.
When Recode contacted Verily for more details about the project, the company directed us to a blog post about the project it published on Sunday. According to Verily, the new coronavirus triage site will work through the company’s existing Project Baseline website and will launch on Monday, March 16 — although a version of that website appeared online Sunday night. Still, the details of how it will work do not match up with the site that Trump described on Friday.
Trump announced a website that did not exist
In a bold declaration on Friday, Trump said that “Google has 1,700 engineers working on” a website that would help people figure out if they needed a coronavirus test and to direct them to testing sites. As we now know, this statement was not entirely true. The reality of Google’s role in addressing the coronavirus outbreak is more complex and, in some ways, more productive.
Within an hour of the president’s Rose Garden speech on Friday, the company’s press team pushed back against Trump’s announcement and tweeted a statement from Verily, drawing a distinction between the two companies and clarifying that the Verily site was only nearing a testing phase, rather than being almost ready to launch.
This is actually a generous depiction of the truth behind the Trump declaration. According to the New York Times, the plan for Verily to build a website to help with coronavirus testing was “in its infancy.” And Verily only has about 1,000 employees. The 1,700 number that Trump claimed in his speech actually refers to the number of Google engineers who, the Thursday before Trump’s speech, filled out a form volunteering to help Verily with its coronavirus triage site in the coming “days and weeks.” Even then, the Verily project was only meant to be used by health care workers.
Suffice it to say, Trump’s Rose Garden speech altered these plans. It wasn’t until after Trump’s speech that Google announced plans for its information website, and it appears the launch of Verily’s triage site was expedited as a result of Trump’s remarks. The Trump administration also sent an updated statement on Saturday, saying that the triage site could be rolled out in nine hot spots for coronavirus cases in the US. Then, when asked directly about the Google website and the timing of its launch at a press conference on Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence said that “at some point early next week we will have a website go up.” He did not specifically say that this would be a Google website but rather alluded to state governments and local retailers would be collaborators.
This is not the same reality that Trump described in his Friday speech — there’s little reason to believe that most Americans will be able to access a website that will direct them to a nearby testing site in the near future — but it’s a start. Easier access to information about the outbreak is certainly a positive thing, as the outbreak continues to evolve in the US.
Maybe, if everything works out, Google and its affiliates will develop all kinds of websites that can someday save lives. For now, Verily says it will roll out one pilot site for Bay Area residents this week, and its plans for future expansion remain unclear.
Jared Kushner talked to Verily’s CEO, who described a project in the works
So it’s not quite accurate to say that Trump lied last Friday. It’s worse than that. Really, Trump gave a sales pitch based on piecemeal information collated by his son-in-law and senior adviser to the president Jared Kushner.
The backstory of how the president publicly shared this twisted mess of misinformation is a wild but familiar ride. In dueling reports published Saturday night, the New York Times and the Washington Post both explained how Kushner had asked tech executives for help in fighting the coronavirus outbreak. Kushner found a promising pitch after conversations with Verily’s chief executive Andy Conrad, who described a project in the works. It wasn’t until Thursday, the day before Trump’s big Rose Garden announcement, that Google CEO Sundar Pichai put out the call for Google engineers to volunteer in “a planning effort” to help with coronavirus testing. At some point before that, Kushner and his cohort had decided to make the half-baked Verily plan public — and put Google’s name on it.
Part of this public announcement included a poster with a very simple flow chart to illustrate how the hypothetical Google site might work. Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, presented the chart on Friday, and described how testing would start with a “screening website … facilitated by Google.” According to the Washington Post, “Pence and Kushner personally worked with digital staffers to design the graphic elements of the poster.” There’s no indication that Google was involved in this part of the planning process.
Yet Trump’s overpromising sales pitch worked in a way. On Sunday, Verily announced a new “collaboration with the California Governor’s office, federal, state and local public health authorities.” The company said:
Californians will be able to take an online COVID-19 screener survey through Project Baseline beginning Monday, March 16. People who meet eligibility and requirements for testing will be directed to mobile testing sites based on capacity, where they will complete a nasal swab test. Once tested, individuals will be informed of their COVID-19 test results within a few days.
It’s unclear when Verily had originally planned to launch its pilot site, and who knows how quickly Google would have made its internal volunteer efforts public if Trump hadn’t misinterpreted them in an extremely public speech.
Then again, the philosophy of moving fast and breaking things doesn’t hold up all that well in a public health crisis. “It’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past,” Trump said of the Google website that Google wasn’t actually building at the time of his speech. There’s a case to be made that a hastily built coronavirus site could do more harm than good, if it doesn’t work properly.
Trump’s coronavirus misinformation shows why it’s essential to prevent even more misinformation
The awful irony of all this is that much of Google’s real efforts to fight the coronavirus outbreak are focused on protecting people from misinformation. The company says it’s working to stop “phishing, conspiracy theories, malware and misinformation” on its platforms, while “promoting authoritative information through Google Search and YouTube.” There’s also a new box on Google’s home page that offers five tips for what people can do to stop the spread of the coronavirus. That the company responded so quickly to the misinformation Trump shared — it was within an hour of the president’s speech — is similarly heartening.
Still, it remains to be seen if the now-rushed Verily website will do much good. Based on what we know, it will be designed to direct Bay Area residents to any of three local coronavirus testing sites. If we believe the Trump administration’s latest statements, the site could be put to use in up to nine hot spots around the country, though it’s not yet clear where those hot spots are. The informational website that Google announced and that Trump failed to mention, meanwhile, sounds like it could be most useful to the most people.
The value of a boring-but-useful website feels like the most optimistic takeaway from all this. While Trump described a transformative and ambitious website that didn’t exist, Google and other tech companies have been building smaller but much more productive solutions, including simple but authoritative links to the World Health Organization (WHO) and other trustworthy resources. It would be wonderful if Silicon Valley giants could solve America’s testing problem overnight, just like it would be remarkable if banning all international travel would prevent the virus from spreading further within US borders. But that’s just not how this works.
A magic website — much like a poorly planned travel ban — is no panacea. Experts say that social distancing is key to help slow the spread of the pandemic. Other basic precautions like washing your hands and staying informed are also productive. If tech companies can focus their resources on anything, for now, it makes sense that those efforts focus on spreading valid information about the coronavirus outbreak and how to slow it down. Despite Trump’s misleading remarks, it sounds like Google is making progress in doing just that.
Updated, March 15, 2020, 11:50 pm ET: This story has been updated with details from the White House press conference on Sunday as well as links to the Verily website that went live on Sunday night.