Trump Oversold a Google Site to Fight Coronavirus

Mr. Pence told reporters on Saturday that “the objective here is to have a website up very quickly,” and promised that more details about the partnership with Google would be revealed on Sunday. He said the website would initially be used “in the areas that have been deeply impacted — Washington State, California, New York.”

Mr. Trump has repeatedly made statements about efforts to combat the virus that are wrong. Even as testing was severely limited, he said that “anyone who wants a test can get one.” He suggested the country was “very close to a vaccine,” despite evidence from health experts that one is probably at least a year away. And he stated he “closed” travel from Europe even though Americans and legal residents are exempted.

This account of the president’s embrace of a Google-backed website as a tool for fighting the virus is based on interviews with administration officials and Google employees familiar with the project, and the communications between the company and the White House.

In the past 10 days, Mr. Kushner, who serves as a senior adviser to the president, has taken an increasingly central role in Mr. Trump’s response to the virus. He helped draft the president’s prime-time address this week from the Oval Office, which drew widespread criticism for its repeated errors and misleading statements. He has also reached out to Dr. Kurt Kloss, a physician based in New York, for advice. Dr. Kloss is the father of Karlie Kloss, who is married to Joshua Kushner, Mr. Kushner’s brother.

Administration officials said people close to Mr. Kushner had been in touch with Andy Conrad, the chief executive at Verily, earlier in the week about whether the subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, could somehow help with testing. Mr. Conrad, who is known within Alphabet as an executive with an independent streak, described the yet unnamed website to them.

Mr. Kushner, who has led the government’s outreach to the technology community, liked the idea, according to one administration official. He directed his team to work with Mr. Conrad and others at Verily on how their original project might be adapted to help fight the virus.

At that point, Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Alphabet, was not involved in the discussions, according to people familiar with the situation. Mr. Pichai contacted Mr. Conrad on Wednesday, after an employee asked a question during one of the company’s all-staff meetings about whether Verily could help with testing.

In a memo to his staff the next day, Mr. Pichai wrote that “a planning effort” was underway at Verily to use its expertise in clinical research to aid in the testing.

“As more test kits become available, the planners are looking to develop a pathway for public health and health care agencies,” Mr. Pichai wrote, adding that the effort was targeted at making sure that “individuals who are at higher risk can be directed to testing sites based on the latest guidance from public health authorities.”

In his Thursday memo, Mr. Pichai noted that Verily is “part of our Alphabet family” and could assist in the coming “days and weeks” to respond quickly. He attached a link to a form where Google employees could volunteer to help. Over the next day, more than 1,700 signed up, a number that was communicated to Mr. Kushner’s team.

On Friday, reeling from the collapse of the stock markets and warnings by health experts of the virus’s rapid spread, Mr. Trump scheduled an afternoon news conference.

In the hours before the president’s appearance, Mr. Kushner’s team prepared a poster showing how the website might work; it did not mention Google specifically, but a flow chart showed that a “screening website” could provide “new options for consumers” around the country as they seek to find out whether they are infected.

During the news conference, Mr. Trump was enthusiastic.

“I want to thank Google — Google is helping to develop a website,” he said. “It’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.”

Moments later, at Mr. Trump’s invitation, Dr. Deborah L. Birx, who is coordinating the response to the virus, held up Mr. Kushner’s poster, saying that it represented a “new approach to testing, which will start in the screening website up here, facilitated by Google.”

The initial reaction 3,000 miles away in Silicon Valley was swift.

Mr. Trump’s comments caught Google completely off guard and executives rushed to issue a statement on Friday afternoon to temper expectations, making it clear that the website is an effort led by Verily, not Google itself. Carolyn Wang, Verily's spokeswoman, said the plan was to start a pilot website for testing locations in the Bay Area but offered no timetable for a broader rollout.

On Friday evening, Mr. Kushner and Mr. Pichai spoke about the website for the first time, according to an administration official.

Since then, Google executives have scrambled to coordinate with the White House in an effort to do as much as possible to make the president’s vision for the website a reality. On Saturday, Google placed a link on its home page — a rare use of its digital canvass — to encourage people to take steps to prevent spreading the virus.

In addition, Google said it was working on a separate “national informational website” to provide information on virus symptoms and testing sites.

In a statement, company executives wrote that they are “aligned with the U.S. government to work to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus and to protect the health of our communities.”

Administration officials on Saturday sought to play down expectations, saying that the website could provide significant help in the fight against the virus if it operated only in the nine biggest hot spots around the country. One official noted that Mr. Trump never said that the website would operate in every community nationwide.

The administration is working to make quick testing available at drive-in locations like the parking lots in front of Walgreens pharmacies or Target stores. The Verily website could help drive patients to those locations, officials said.

Mr. Kushner declined to comment.

Michael D. Shear reported from Washington, and Daisuke Wakabayashi from San Francisco. David McCabe contributed reporting from Washington.

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