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Alphabet’s Verily coronavirus testing efforts still relatively small one month later

April 14, 2020, 2:45 PM UTC

One month ago, a small subsidiary of Alphabet was helping drugmakers connect to patients for clinical trials. The company, Verily, also quietly was in the early stages of building a website that could help speed up testing for the novel coronavirus just then sweeping the U.S. Then, on March 13, President Donald Trump thrust the company into the national spotlight by erroneously announcing that Google, Verily’s sister company, had developed a nationwide test site.

Caught off guard and needing to clear up which corporate entity was doing what, Verily launched a pilot version of its site three days later. It helped people ages 18 and older determine whether they should be tested and directed high-risk patients in California to one of two testing facilities it helped set up. One month later, the company has helped facilitate the test of more than 8,000 people and helped established test sites in six California counties. It also is working with pharmacy Rite-Aid on test sites in Philadelphia, which is open, and Harrisburg, Pa., which is set to open soon, the company announced Tuesday.

While the company’s effort expands the state’s testing capacity and helps prevent overcrowded test sites, Verily’s work represented just 4% of California’s screenings as of April 11, according to data provided by the California Department of Public Health. Those tests account for less than 1% nationwide tests as of April 4, according to totals from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“They’re just trying to provide some additional help in the quagmire we’re in,” said Lee Riley, division head of Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health. “Any little effort will be helpful. Whether or not they’ll make a difference in blunting the virus—that I’m not so sure.”

Verily, formerly known as Google Life Sciences, is focused on improving healthcare and health outcomes through the use of data. The company, which started as one of Google X’s “moonshot” projects, entered the fight against the coronavirus at a key moment: when many states were complaining about the lack of access to testing as the virus was rapidly spreading across the nation. Its efforts to help have been welcomed by local authorities even as they have been scrutinized by critics who worry about how Verily will manage sensitive health data.

Verily says it responded to calls from the state of California, which had received a batch of tests missing key components from the federal government, exacerbating the already limited number of available tests. “We received calls from state and local officials asking, ‘Is there anything you can help with?’” said Jessica Mega, Verily’s chief medical and scientific officer. “The idea that we were really interested in is: How do you create the best solutions around testing?”

Part of the messaging confusion from the president’s original briefing stems from the cooperative relationship between Verily and Google. Though there was no basis for Trump’s comment that 1,700 Google engineers were at work on the national testing site, Verily’s Mega says that, in fact, about 1,000 people, including Google employees, volunteered to help with the effort, which originally focused on just two sites in the Bay Area.

Within a couple of days of Trump’s comment, Verily had set up its website, positioning it as a Bay Area pilot project. The website includes a survey to help people determine, based on their symptoms and risk factors, whether they were considered “at-risk” and therefore should be tested. It also schedules people’s screenings at nearby test sites, which it helps manually set up and, in some cases, operate. Finally, Verily delivers patients’ test results, which are processed by Quest Diagnostics, a clinical laboratory that works with clinics and hospitals worldwide.

Verily has test sites, at which it partners with local health authorities in six California counties: Sacramento, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Riverside, Sherman Oaks, and most recently San Joaquin.

Mega said Verily is actively talking to government officials in California and beyond about whether it makes sense to add new test sites, but it hasn’t struck any new government partnerships. It is working with Rite-Aid on additional future sites in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, Connecticut, and Virginia. It also put out a guide to help authorities recreate the process for themselves. Verily does not make any money from any of the testing sites, Mega said, and the company declined to comment on how much it has spent on the effort.

Riverside County said that the company helped it cut down on wait times for residents who wanted to get tested. “We had pulled together a call center and a 1-800 number,” said Brooke Federico, spokeswoman for Riverside County’s public health department. “We had an hour wait before they could be answered. After we moved to [Verily’s] online system, that wait went to 7 minutes.”

Verily was the first private company to offer the county aid in San Mateo, which welcomed the extra help.

“It was important for them to come on,” said Preston Merchant, a spokesman for San Mateo’s health department. “It started as incremental [change], but it’s beginning to change the game for us.”

Verily’s coronavirus website is part of Project Baseline, the company’s initiative to collect health data for the purpose of preventing future diseases. And in addition to collecting basic information like name and scheduling details for people who accessed the site, Verily said it also would have access to answers to survey questions as well as test results. Any data it collects may be shared with government agencies as well as the company’s health partners. 

The company says it does not share data with Google, though it does ask users for their email address on Gmail for verification. At the end of the testing process, Verily will ask users if they consent to sharing their data with Project Baseline, which is planning to use the information for clinical research. Verily said it was too early to discuss what that research is.

Mega said coronavirus testing is just one part of a Project Baseline’s larger effort to better detect and better treat future illnesses. And Riley, the University of California infectious disease official, says U.S. efforts are at the point that they need to focus more on what the data shows rather than expansion of testing. Google, in partnership with Apple, is taking a stab at providing more data that could help people know when they’ve come into close contact with someone who’s tested positive for the coronavirus. The effort is separate of Project Baseline.

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