Google is making a national coronavirus testing website — or, it’s not, actually. Who can say?
That was essentially the word from the White House Saturday as confusion reigned over what kind of role the tech giant had agreed to play in the federal government’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Friday, President Donald Trump portrayed Google as the central player in a website to screen for people who ought to get tested for the disease. He added that the website would be “very quickly done.”
But Google’s sister company Verily, the Alphabet subsidiary actually making the site, responded by painting a much smaller picture of their work, saying the site’s use would be confined to the Bay Area, at least at first.
Statement from Verily: "We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing. Verily is 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.
— Google Communications (@Google_Comms) March 13, 2020
A spokesperson for Verily told The New York Times that Trump’s remarks themselves prompted the company to make the website public. And CNN reported that the program actually began as a collaboration with the state of California, not the federal government.
Vice President Mike Pence, asked about the clashing statements during a press conference Saturday, said that “Google issued a statement that they are planning to launch a website. I think they gave a date of Monday, March 16th.” But he failed to note that the initial roll-out would be confirmed to the Bay Area.
Later on in the press conference, when a reporter pressed Pence on these discrepancies, Pence actually read from Google’s statement — articulating for the first time the claims from the company that have clashed with the Trump administration.
“The objective here is to have a website up very quickly,” the vice president said, adding: “We’re going to have very specific details on the roll-out of this new public-private partnership in testing at 5 o’clock tomorrow.”
On Friday, announcing the effort publicly for the first time, the White House presented an expansive view of Google’s involvement.
Trump said the company was “helping to develop a website that’s going to 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.” The company had 1,700 engineers on the project, Trump claimed.
But Google’s statement contradicted that information.
After Pence’s remarks Friday, The New York Times’ tech-focused opinion writer Charlie Warzel said no one he’d spoken to at Google had said the project was meant to roll out nationwide.
The confusion over the testing website adds to confusion over testing capacity itself from the Trump administration.