Vice President Mike Pence promised “specific” clarifying information Saturday after a Google statement flatly contradicted President Donald Trump’s earlier tout that the tech giant would “quickly” have a national website up to help the public with coronavirus screening.
“We’re working 24/7 on this,” Pence told reporters at a White House news conference. “We’re going to have very specific details on the rollout of this new public-private partnership and testing at 5 o’clock tomorrow.” The “objective here is to have a website up very quickly,” he added. Pence said Google would launch a “pilot project” website Monday for “risk assessment.”
Trump’s announcement Friday in the Rose Garden apparently took Google by surprise. The company shortly afterward issued a statement from Verily — a subsidiary of Google’s parent Alphabet — that it has a site in “early development” that would be rolled out for testing in the San Francisco Bay Area, with the “hope of expanding more broadly over time.”
Trump had thanked Google Friday for developing a website that would help people “determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.”
It’s “going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past,” he added, in an apparent dig at a jammed website used for the government’s health insurance exchange during the Obama administration.
Trump claimed Google had “1,700 engineers” working on the project, making “tremendous progress.”
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, held up a cardboard mock-up of a website page after Trump’s comments to reporters showing where “consumers” could click on a label saying “no coronavirus symptoms,” which would then advise users not to be tested.
Verily representative Carolyn Wang described the operation to The Verge Friday as a “triage website” that was intended for health workers, not the general public, but that’s now being changed. The site was also intended to primarily be a mapping aid so users can type in their address and find the closest location for testing. It will only be able to direct people to “pilot sites” for testing in the Bay Area, though Verily hopes to expand that beyond California “over time,” she said.
As for Trump’s talk of 1,700 engineers working on the site, a Verily employee told The Daily Beast: “There’s absolutely not 1,700 engineers at Verily. I’m not even sure there are 1,700 people at Verily.” Google did note on Twitter that employees from outside Verily were “volunteering” on the project.
Trump’s announcement about a Google health site immediately raised concerns about patient privacy and the company’s controversial use of personal information.