President Donald Trump and other officials misleadingly suggested that tech behemoth Google was working on a screening website that large numbers of Americans could soon use to see if they should be tested for the new coronavirus. The website, however, is actually a project of Google’s sister company Verily and is initially limited to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Trump first mentioned the project in a March 13 press conference in the Rose Garden.
Trump, March 13: I want to thank Google. Google is helping to develop a website. It’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past, to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.
We have many, many locations behind us, by the way. We cover the — this country in large part. So the world, by the way — we’re not going to be talking about the world right now. But we cover very, very strongly our country. Stores in virtually every location.
Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now. They’ve made tremendous progress. Our overriding goal is to stop the spread of the virus and to help all Americans who have been impacted by this.
Trump never explicitly said the website would soon be available to all Americans, but he strongly implied as much by touting the speed of development, noting the numerous testing locations covering “this country in large part,” and by mentioning Google’s engineers and the “overriding goal” to “help all Americans” in the same breath.
A bit later in the press conference, coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx also indicated that the website was part of a larger effort when she unveiled a flow chart and spoke about a “new approach to testing” involving the alleged Google website.
Birx, March 13: So we want to also announce this new approach to testing, which will start in the screening website up here, facilitated by Google, where clients and patients and people that have interest can go, fill out a screening questionnaire — move down for symptoms or risk factors, yes. They would move down this and be told where the drive-thru options would be for them to receive this test. The labs will then move to the high-throughput automated machines to be able to provide results in 24 to 36 hours.
Less than an hour after the press conference, Google tweeted a clarifying statement from Verily, the Google-adjacent company responsible for the screening website.
“We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing,” the company said, referring to the name of the disease caused by the new virus. “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.”
It should be noted that while Verily is linked to Google, it is not the same entity. Verily is a life sciences and health care subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Reuters reported that some Google employees are assisting Verily, but the company did not share any numbers. The 1,700 engineers Trump cited is likely incorrect, as per the New York Times, that figure is the number of employees who said the day before that they would be willing to volunteer for the project.
In a series of tweets the next day, Google said it was “fully aligned” with the U.S. government on limiting the spread of the coronavirus, and announced that it was partnering with the government to develop a nationwide website “that includes information about COVID-19 symptoms, risk and testing information.”
But such a site bears no resemblance to what Trump and Birx previously announced. Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai gave more details in a March 15 blog post, saying the website would be “dedicated to COVID-19 education, prevention, and local resources nationwide” and would include “best practices on prevention, links to authoritative information from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and helpful tips and tools from Google for individuals, teachers and businesses.”
And indeed, the Verily project “to launch a pilot website that will enable individuals to do a risk assessment and be scheduled for testing at sites in the Bay Area” was described separately.
Trump, however, pointed to those tweets as vindication. In an evening press briefing on March 15, Trump held up a printout of those tweets and let it drop to the ground while criticizing the press and claiming he was supported by Google’s statements.
Trump, March 15: I want to thank the people at Google and Google Communications because, as you know, they substantiated what I said on Friday. The head of Google, who’s a great gentleman, said — called us and he apologized. I don’t know where the press got their fake news, but they got it someplace. But as you know — this is from Google — they put out a release. And you guys can figure it out yourselves. And how that got out — and I’m sure you’ll apologize. But it would be great if we could really give the news correctly. It would be so, so wonderful.
A few hours earlier, Trump had retweeted the Google thread and falsely said the news media “never called Google.”
Contrary to Trump’s claims, none of Google’s statements support anything other than the idea that Verily was working on a screening survey that would at first be limited to the Bay Area — a fact that Trump never acknowledged in any of the briefings, although Vice President Mike Pence allowed as much in a March 14 briefing.
In a March 15 blog post, Verily said it would have a Bay Area rollout for its triage tool on March 16, but didn’t mention plans to expand outside of California. “Ultimately, our goal is to help local authorities expand testing access in California as the need continues to increase,” the post reads. “The program is in its early stages, and we will take the time to assess operations at pilot sites in the Bay Area before rolling out to additional sites.”
That’s not to say that a national rollout isn’t possible — in statements to other journalists, Verily spokespeople have vaguely said that the company hopes to broaden the effort. But the company has remained noncommittal and has not released a timetable.
We reached out to Google, Verily and Verily’s Project Baseline, which is in charge of the project, and did not receive replies.
As of March 16, the online screener is available to Californians in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties only.
Trump is also wrong to say that journalists “never called Google.” Many, in fact, did, which is why numerous news articles include statements and other comments from Verily.
The New York Times said that Google officials directed its questions about the project to Verily, “where a spokeswoman said the company was merely ‘in the early stages of development.’” TechCrunch said that it contacted Google “a few minutes” after Trump’s comments, and it took Verily nearly two hours to respond. Reuters quoted two Verily spokeswomen. And the Verge reported that the communications lead for Verily said the triage website was initially meant for health care workers, not the general public. “Now that it has been announced the way it was, however,” the Verge article notes, “anybody will be able to visit it, she said.”