Verily, the Google spinout focused on life sciences, on Monday will launch an online screening survey to triage people in the San Francisco Bay Area who are concerned they may be infected with the new coronavirus and, when appropriate, direct them to two mobile testing facilities in Silicon Valley.
Verily said in a statement it plans to roll out the tool to additional locations over time, but it did not provide details about when that would happen. At least for now, the pilot program’s scope is far more limited than the national rollout President Trump appeared to have been suggesting would happen in a White House press conference on Friday afternoon. After describing the website being developed by “Google,” he added in those Friday remarks, “We have many, many locations behind us, by the way. We cover the — this country in large part.”
The president stood by his remarks at a Sunday news conference at the White House — held at about the same time that California Gov. Gavin Newsom was speaking about the tool just outside of Sacramento.
In a press conference on Sunday afternoon, Newsom said the tool is meant for people with mild symptoms, as well as those at high risk, including seniors. People who use the website will be asked to answer specific questions and then be scored in terms of their likelihood to need testing, Newsom said.
For those who should be tested, a reservation system will be set up for mobile testing at two sites in Santa Clara County and San Mateo County, both in Silicon Valley. (As of Sunday, Santa Clara County had confirmed 114 cases, and San Mateo County had confirmed 32 cases, including its first death.)
Newsom said he expects the program will expand to other parts of the state, specifically naming the Central Valley. A spokesperson for Verily said that, initially, the sites would be prepared to test several hundred people per day, and that “limiting factors” for the program would be the availability of test kits and lab capacity.
“We believe it will be a national model,” Newsom said in his remarks.
The announcement creates a remarkable moment in the spotlight for Verily, a unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet focused on initiatives ranging from treating addiction to using machine learning to screen for eye problems affecting patients with diabetes. While Verily has generated plenty of buzz in the health tech industry, it is much less known to the general public than Google.
The screening tool will be offered via Verily’s big longitudinal “Project Baseline” study of human health.
Newsom’s announcement comes after several days of confusion and inconsistent messaging by Google and the White House about what exactly would be built and who it would serve.
In his remarks on Friday, Trump said that Google was developing a website that would be “very quickly done, unlike websites of the past — to determine if a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.” Trump said that Google has tasked 1,700 engineers to work on the project and that they “have made tremendous progress.” (As of a year ago, Verily employed over 700 people.)
Trump did not specify that the tool would be limited to the Bay Area for now.
But soon after Trump’s remarks, Verily put out a statement clarifying that it was “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.”
Briefing reporters on Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence said that the goal was to quickly launch a website for people in the U.S. regions most affected by the spread of the virus. Along with California, Pence named Washington state, New York, Massachusetts, and Florida — states that have reported some of America’s highest numbers of cases — as places where the tool would be quickly expanded. Verily has not yet publicly named those states as targets to roll out its tool.
In a tweet on Sunday before Newsom’s press conference, Trump pushed back on the criticism that he had overstated the scope of Verily’s tool. Trump referred to the press as “the Fake and Corrupt News” and falsely accused reporters of not seeking comment from Google. (Neither Google nor Verily had responded to queries from STAT about the tool until Sunday afternoon.)
At his press conference on Sunday afternoon, Trump said he wanted to “thank the people at Google and Google Communications because, as you know, they substantiated what I said on Friday.”
In those Sunday remarks, Trump said that “the head of Google, who is a great gentleman” — he didn’t specify who he was referring to — called to apologize and say that he didn’t know where the press got its information.