Not all Americans have equal access to testing for the coronavirus. And not all Americans even have equal information about what existing testing might be available amid widespread testing delays and gaps across the country.
That’s part of the reason why an email the Silicon Valley venture capital firm DCVC sent to its investors on Tuesday — offering them access to expedited Covid-19 testing due to a “unique relationship” — caused a stir. To some in Silicon Valley, it came across that better access to testing during a public health emergency was a perk of being wealthy or well-connected enough to be an investor in a venture capital firm. The firm disputes that it offered any special access and said it merely was “boasting” and misspoke.
“Please let us know as soon as possible if you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and are unable to get tested,” read the email the firm distributed to its investors, or limited partners, on March 24, which was obtained by Recode. “Through a unique relationship with one of our portfolio companies, we will expedite delivery of a test kit (simple, fast, safe saliva/cheek swab) that should provide results within 1-3 days via return by mail.”
The email in the very least made for unfortunate optics at a time when so many ordinary Americans who have symptoms for the virus have been unable to get tested. The whole incident serves as a reminder that the rich and well-connected are often first to be aware of testing resources and have the means to pay for a $170 test in the first place — another way in which the pandemic is emphasizing the country’s stark economic and information divides.
In a blog post published after being contacted by Recode for comment, DCVC apologized and said the language it used in its email was “boastful” and inapt.
Matt Ocko, one of the firm’s founders, told Recode that its investors would not get preferential access to the testing offered by the startups he has backed, a health care delivery provider called Carbon Health and a lab called Curative, which have a testing partnership. Instead, he said he merely planned to refer them to the companies where they could join the existing queue, which he claimed is public and was first-come, first-serve for anyone willing to pay the $170 fee for the test. Nevertheless, he said the language was improper and conveyed the wrong message, which he said was written when he had “a couple hours of sleep and [was] a little punch-drunk.”
“We thought we were looking mysterious and cool to our limited partners — on whose capital and goodwill we depend — so looking mysterious and cool, like you have preferential access to things, is not necessarily a bad thing to do when you’re trying to maintain your cool quotient with people,” Ocko said. “But the net is, no one is jumping in line.”
Ocko said he was merely advertising a test that was publicly available. But Curative capped the initial distribution of their tests to only 50 people for now, and Carbon Health told Recode that Curative’s services were only originally offered to their existing patients. Other labs that work with Carbon Health could offer additional testing.
Ocko told Recode that if any of his limited partners responded to him and asked for help — only one did, he said, and the person ended up finding a test on their own — he would’ve informed them that they could not actually let them cut the line. He said he could tell them, “We would do our best to plead your case if there is a delay.”
Michael Arrington, a tech commentator, wasn’t aware of that, though, and felt differently when he received the email on Tuesday.
“Got the email today that a lot of Silicon Valley insiders received. That we can have access to private testing immediately,” he tweeted, although he didn’t name DCVC specifically. “I HATE that certain people can get immediate testing based on who you are or who you know.”
Got the email today that a lot of Silicon Valley insiders received. That we can have access to private testing immediately. I HATE that certain people can get immediate testing based on who you are or who you know.— Michael Arrington (@arrington) March 25, 2020
Ocko said Arrington misunderstood DCVC’s initial email and that it wasn’t offering “immediate testing”— it required known symptoms, and any referred LPs would have to go through the normal process to receive the testing, which includes a referral by a doctor. Asked why he said it had a “unique relationship” with the company if this was available to anyone, Ocko reiterated that he was “boasting.”
“If you knew that your buddies were opening up an eight-lane freeway ... and you say, ‘Hey, as we’ve said publicly, there’s an eight-lane freeway opening up, let us remind you how cool an eight-lane freeway is,” Ocko said, “there’s no cheating. There’s no preferential access. They don’t have a lane reserved for themselves — just reminding them that there’s so much capacity that they’ll have a more pleasurable driving experience.”
People who read the email — which went to about 100 limited partners, a group of people that can include everyone from charitable foundations to investors’ friends and families to sovereign wealth funds based overseas — nevertheless still had better information than regular people did about the Carbon Health and Curative testing programs. Ocko pointed out that that’s he’s merely doing what he could to compensate for the government’s failures at offering widespread Covid-19 testing and that he’s been trying to share information about the private coronavirus tests with anyone who would listen.
“People seemed shocked to find that the rich have much better access to health care in America,” one prominent bioethicist, Arthur Caplan, told Recode. “That injustice has been true for decades — the pandemic just makes it more obvious.”
A growing number of Americans have expressed outrage over how a number of wealthy people and celebrities in the US have seemed to have better access to Covid-19 testing. Entire NBA teams have managed to get testing, even those players without symptoms. And many in Washington grew upset over the last few days at the ease with which Rand Paul, a GOP senator, was able to obtain a test despite not showing any coronavirus symptoms.
At the same time, DCVC’s ability to help its limited partners — if they ask for it — has been diminished. That’s because the Food and Drug Administration has cracked down on at-home collection kits over the last few days, causing Curative to cease offering these testing services for the time being. Its leadership didn’t respond to requests for comments. The startup, formed earlier this year, had hoped to offer as many as 10,000 tests a day, despite only serving 50 through their at-home testing program before that was shut down.
Carbon Health, however, is still offering testing through other lab providers like Quest, and Ocko said he would refer his LPs to them should they contact him.
“In any instance where access to care is unequal, that’s frustrating to me,” said Caesar Djavaherian, the co-founder of Carbon Health, who said he was unaware of the DCVC controversy. “Especially when the whole notion of this test is to reach people who may not be able to easily access care throughout California, and eventually throughout the country.”