Alphabet’s Verily is building a triaging tool to help people find COVID-19 testing sites in the U.S. The company says this tool will target the San Francisco Bay Area, though Verily hopes to expand coverage to more regions in the future. The move is part of a public-private partnership to dispense COVID-19 testing to “millions of Americans” in the weeks ahead at places like Target, Walgreens, CVS, and Walmart parking lots, according to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. Testing to confirm COVID-19 cases has been a critical part of response plans in other countries around the world.
U.S. President Trump announced the news today (although he erroneously said Google was building the tool) while declaring a national emergency in a White House press conference. Trump, Pence, and the rest of the administration implied the tool would serve people nationwide. Positive COVID-19 cases have now been found in all 50 states, and on Wednesday the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic.
The federal government said it would point people to a website where they could fill out a screening questionnaire, stating their symptoms and risk factors, and that if necessary they would then be told the location of a drive-through testing option. Automated machines will be used to return results in 24 to 36 hours.
President Trump claimed that about 1,700 engineers are building the website, but that also appears to be incorrect, according to The Verge. Verily did confirm, however, that some Google engineers have volunteered to be part of this effort. VentureBeat has reached out to Google for more information about the triage tool.
Dr. Deborah Burke said nasal swab samples can be delivered to doctors’ offices and hospitals and then picked up by companies like Quest Diagnostics.
“The important piece in this all is they’ve gone from a machine that may have a lower throughput to the potential to have automated extraction,” she said. “It’s really key for the laboratory people; it’s an automated extraction of the RNA that then runs in an automated way on the machine with no one touching it. And the result comes out of the other end.” She said that going from sample to machine to results removes the manual procedures that were slowing down testing and delaying results.
As an emergency executive action announced by Trump today, the Department of Education will waive interest on student loans held by federal government agencies, and he instructed the Secretary of Energy to buy crude oil reserves.
At midnight tonight, the United States will suspend travel from Europe, and U.S. citizens traveling into the country will be asked to take part in a voluntary 14-day quarantine.
Tech giants like Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft took part in a teleconference with White House CTO Michael Kratsios to discuss how artificial intelligence and tech can help combat this disease. A White House statement said the discussion touched on issues like the creation of new tools. Public health officials and authorities from China to Singapore and beyond have used AI as part of solutions to detect and fight COVID-19 since the novel coronavirus emerged in December 2019.
Earlier this year, Google’s DeepMind also released structure predictions of proteins associated with the virus that causes COVID-19 with the latest version of the AlphaFold system.
“These structure predictions have not yet been experimentally verified, but the hope is that by accelerating their release they may contribute to the scientific community’s understanding of how the virus functions and experimental work in developing future treatments,” Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a blog post last week.
Upon questioning by reporters at the press conference, Trump refused to take responsibility for the heretofore slow U.S. response to the pandemic. He also evaded questions about whether he needs to be tested for COVID-19, despite the fact that he was in close proximity days ago with a person who has tested positive — Fabio Wajngarten, press secretary to Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. Eventually, after multiple reporters pressed him on the issue, Trump said he would get tested — but not, he said, because of his contact with the two men. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez was also in contact the Bolsonaro and Wajngarten at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and today tested positive for coronavirus.
Throughout the press conference, President Trump, Vice President Pence, and a roster of scientists and executives shook hands and touched the same mic.
Updated 4:40 p.m. Pacific. The original version of this story relied on statements by President Donald Trump and White House officials, but it was updated to reflect a Google communications statement that Alphabet’s Verily, not Google, is in the early stages of creating a tool to help triage individuals in the San Francisco Bay Area.