Nearly two weeks after President Donald Trump announced on March 13 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 March 15 press conference that 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 Verily went live with a tool for coronavirus risk screening that directed residents of two counties in Northern California to test centers. It wasn’t long before the Verily site ran into trouble. People with symptoms were told they weren’t eligible for the screening program, and those who were needed a Google login to use the tool. On top of that, the Verily site reached capacity the morning after launch. Google announced a week later that it would expand to two more testing sites in Northern California.
After being delayed by several days, Google finally launched its coronavirus portal on March 21. The informational website includes “state-based information, safety and prevention tips, search trends related to COVID-19, and further resources for individuals, educators and businesses,” according to Google’s announcement. It does not include the things Trump said the site would include, like information about local testing sites. The belated launch came not long after Vanity Fair reported that President Trump was angry at Jared Kushner for overselling Google’s plans, before the president announced the new website at a White House press conference.
Now that the Verily and Google sites are live, it’s more clear than ever that the website Trump described is not what the American public will use to find coronavirus testing. The situation is much more complicated than that.
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 dynamic site that guides people to testing locations, what Google built is much simpler. The company announced on March 15 that it was “partnering with the US Government in developing a nationwide website that includes information about COVID-19 symptoms, risk, and testing information.” The new Google site includes plenty of information culled from sources like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). It does not include much information about how to find testing centers.
The site Trump initially promised 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. After Trump’s speech, Verily said that it was “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 it published shortly before the pilot site went live on March 15. The new Verily coronavirus triage site works through the company’s existing Project Baseline website, and it launched ahead of schedule. The screening process starts by asking people if they’re symptomatic, though only those who say they have severe symptoms are directed to log in with a Google account to find a testing site.
The Verily screening site now serves residents of San Mateo, Santa Clara, Riverside, and Sacramento counties in California. With limitations like this in mind, it’s clear that Verily’s new tool is quite different from the site Trump described in mid March.
Trump announced a website that did not exist
In his bold but unexpected announcement on March 13, 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, 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” at the time of Trump’s announcement. 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 informational 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 March 16, saying that the triage site could be rolled out in nine hotspots 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 March 15, 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 implied that state governments and local retailers would be collaborators.
This is not the same reality that Trump described in his original 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 it continues to evolve in the US. But more than a week after Trump’s speech, Google told The Verge that its informational website was still not ready but that it would “surface authoritative information for people in the US, including on screening and testing.”
Again, the informational Google site launched on March 21 and included very little information on screening and testing.
Maybe, if everything works out, Google and its affiliates will continue to develop all kinds of websites that can someday save lives. For now, Verily has rolled out a pilot site for a limited number of residents, and its plans for future expansion remain unclear. Google’s informational website is not at all what Trump described.
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 about the Google site. It’s worse than that. Really, Trump gave a sales pitch based on piecemeal information collated by his son-in-law and senior adviser 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 on March 14, 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 in conversations with Verily’s chief executive Andy Conrad, who described a project in the works. It wasn’t until 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. Two days after his speech, 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 homepage 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. The site is currently designed to direct Bay Area residents to any of five local coronavirus testing sites. If we believe the Trump administration’s latest statements, the site could be put to use in as many as nine hotspots around the country, though it’s not yet clear where those hotspots are or when this might happen. The informational Google website — which, again, is not what Trump described — 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 as though Google is making progress in doing just that.
Updated, March 23, 2020, 1:10 pm ET: This story has been updated with details about the informational Google website and expansion of the Verily site.