During a press conference on Friday to declare the novel coronavirus outbreak a national emergency in the U.S. – “two very big words”, mind you – President Donald Trump and other White House members touted a coronavirus screening website supposedly being developed by Google that would soon be available nationwide. According to Trump, 1,700 Google engineers are working on this project and “they have made tremendous progress” so far.
Federal coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx even had a handy dandy chart showing how it would work (and I’m pretty sure it’s illegal for charts to lie). You’d just answer a questionnaire about your symptoms and, depending on your results, the site would direct you to the nearest drive-through testing facility, which aren’t currently available nationwide – as they have been in other countries for weeks – but the administration’s working on that part. The website would even display your test results within a few days.
Apparently, though, this was all news to the search engine giant too. Probably because the president managed to get nearly every detail about the initiative wrong.
The announcement baffled Google higher-ups, a source from within the company told WIRED. While another company under the Alphabet corporate umbrella, the health-focused Verily, is currently building a triage tool to direct people to Covid-19 testing (the disease caused by the virus), at this point it’s nowhere near the scale the president described. Shortly after Trump’s announcement, Google’s communications and public affairs team posted a statement from Verily on Twitter going into more detail:
“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.”
So in short: it’s not nationwide, it’s not made by Google, and, until Trump dropped the ball, it apparently wasn’t even going to be publicly available. The head of communications at Verily, Carolyn Wang, told the Verge that this trial website was originally being engineered exclusively for healthcare workers.
Thanks to the president’s flub, it’ll now be open for everyone to visit at launch. At the moment, though, it can only direct people exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms to “pilot sites” within the Bay area. Wang told the Verge they hope to roll out the tool beyond California “over time”.
Which all sounds significantly different from what White House staff described. Though admittedly, the concept did sound far-fetched considering how bureaucratic hurdles and other delays have the U.S. lagging far behind other countries when it comes to providing test kits and making testing easily available. The Covid Tracking Project has confirmed 16,521 total tests nationwide as of Thursday. South Korea currently eclipses that total in about two days.
As for that 1,700 number, it was mentioned in a company-wide call for volunteers that Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai sent out Thursday. As first reported by CNBC, Pichai issued a memo that mentioned how “a planning effort is underway” for Verily to “aid in the COVID-19 effort in the U.S”, which might be where Trump got the idea in the first place sans any reading comprehension skills.
When Verily’s website – the actual one, not whatever the president was talking about – goes live, it’ll be available at Project Baseline, the company’s tool for connecting users with clinical research studies. Within the U.S. to date, there have been more than 2,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 across 47 states and Washington, D.C., with around 41 reported deaths.
Updated, 3/14/2020, 11:22 p.m. BST: Vice President Mike Pence, who’s slated to announce more about the website later this weekend, has double-downed on the U.S. administration’s assertions that this, in fact, a Google-run project. During a Saturday press conference, Pence said he believed the screening website will go live on Monday and that he “couldn’t be more grateful to all the people at Google putting this together”.
However, he did walk back claims that this tool would initially be accessible nationwide, explaining that it would debut in the San Francisco Bay Area before rolling out across the country.
“The objective here is to have a website up very quickly, first for the people who have been deeply impacted” in areas such as California and New York, Pence said. Additional details about the website are soon to come, he added.
Verily and Google did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s inquiry, and neither has issued any public comments regarding a planned launch date or a definitive schedule for nationwide expansion.
Featured photo: Getty