Google, Walmart join government effort to speed up coronavirus testing, Trump says
(Reuters) – Corporate America joined the fight against the spread of coronavirus on Friday, as President Donald Trump and executives announced that Google would offer a website to help people determine whether they needed tests and retailers set up drive-through tests in parking lots.
Ambassador Debbie Birx, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, displays the new testing protocols being deployed for coronavirus after U.S. President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Pressure has been rising on U.S. officials to increase and improve testing for the fast-spreading virus, which has spread to almost every U.S. state and infected more than 1,660 people in the country.
“I want to thank Google. Google is helping to develop a website, it’s gonna 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 …,” Trump said.
“Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now, made tremendous progress.”
An administration presentation showed the website would ask several questions and then indicate whether to get a test.
Verily, a healthcare tech company also owned by Alphabet, said it was leading the effort to develop the web tool for testing with the help of Google engineers.
“We are 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,” Verily spokeswoman Kathleen Parkes said.
She did not respond to questions on how the effort originated, the extent of Google’s involvement, and how individuals’ data would be protected and used.
Visitors to the screening website that require a coronavirus test will be referred to a store that can provide assistance, potentially including a drive-through option, according to the administration’s presentation. Results would be available in 24 to 36 hours.
Neither Trump nor Verily provided more details, and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said the website’s launch date would be known by Sunday night.
Leading U.S. retailers will work with the government to assist with drive-through coronavirus testing, the Retail Industry Leaders Association said. Senior leaders of Walmart, Target, Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc (WBA.O) and CVS stood with Trump at the announcement.
The tests will be conducted in retail stores’ parking lots and sent to labs to complete testing in partnership with local health departments and diagnostic labs. The testing sites will not be run by the companies.
FINDING A TEST
The cooperation with the Trump administration comes as Alphabet faces several antitrust investigations from state and federal agencies over its search and digital advertising businesses.
Trump has accused Google of skewing its search results to portray him negatively. The company has also attracted the administration’s ire for not renewing a contract to provide its artificial intelligence technologies for a military drone program.
“Google cozying up to the government doesn’t hurt,” said Andre Barlow, an antitrust expert with the law firm Doyle, Barlow and Mazard. “Obviously there are a lot of factors that are weighed in the antitrust investigation, which could go either way.”
Trump also is eager to increase testing after efforts were hampered by flawed kits distributed by the federal government in February, which gave some false results.
In describing problems with past websites, Trump appeared to be referring to the Obama administration’s troubled rollout of Healthcare.gov, a portal for securing healthcare insurance that had numerous loading delays and user registration glitches.
Reporting by Chris Sanders, Makini Brice and Diane Bartz in Washington and Paresh Dave and Peter Henderson in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Munsif Vengattil; Editing by Krishna Chandra Eluri, Arun Koyyur and Richard Chang