Explained: What is Google subsidiary Verily, how it plans to help US fight Covid-19

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Donald Trump made the announcement about Google helping the US government at a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House on Friday, March 13. (Photo: AP)

On Friday (March 13), announcing a state of national emergency and listing the measures taken to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, US President Donald Trump announced that Google was helping the government develop a website “to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location”.

The company & the tool

Trump was talking about Verily, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet “focused on life sciences and healthcare”. At the press conference, Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, said the website would let people fill out a questionnaire describing symptoms after which they would be directed to drive-through testing centres. "The labs will then move to the high-throughput automated machines to be able to provide results in 24 to 36 hours,” she said.

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Soon after, Google Communications' Twitter handle had a statement attributed to 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,” the tweet said. It did not specify if this was the website Trump mentioned about, and rather used the term tool.

As the US tried to get clarity from both, a later tweet said: “We are fully aligned and continue to work with the US Government to contain the spread of COVID-19, inform citizens, and protect the health of our communities.”

Later, a Verily spokesperson told time.com that the site will be part of Verily’s Project Baseline and could be available “by Monday”.

How it reads data

Launched in 2015, Verily claims its mission is to “make the world’s health data useful so that people enjoy healthier lives”. So it “develops tools and devices to collect, organise and activate health data”, and “creates interventions to prevent and manage disease”. The company, headed by Andrew Conrad, PhD, has engineers, scientists, designers and medical experts working on different projects.

Project Baseline was launched by Verily in 2017 “with the goal of bridging the gap between research and care”. A clear agenda is to create a detailed baseline of what a healthy human being should be using anonymised data from hundreds of users. It also lets regular people become part of clinical research aimed at creating this human map of sorts.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported that Alphabet Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai has told employees about the partnership. “A planning effort is underway to use the expertise in life sciences and clinical research of Verily in partnership with Google to aid in the COVID-19 testing effort,” Bloomberg quoted Pichai’s email as telling employees.

Asking for volunteers to work on the project, Pichai wrote that the “planners are looking to develop a pathway for public health and health care agencies to direct people to our Baseline website, where individuals who are at higher risk can be directed to testing sites based on the latest guidance from public health authorities”.

Google's role

Google seems to be helping the US government’s COVID-19 efforts in other ways too. Anne Schuchat, Principal Deputy Director at US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had told Congress earlier this month that her agency was using Google location data to map travel patterns among other things.

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The search giant is also triggering an “SOS Alert” on coronavirus searches across the world, giving prominence to posts from mainstream news publications and health authorities.

Last week, it also banned ads for face masks as well as monetisation on YouTube videos related to the topic to disincentivise creation of fake videos touting alternative treatments for the virus.

Verily is not Alphabet’s only medical research company. It also owns Calico — acronym for “California Life Company” — researching into aging and related diseases.