Alphabet's Verily ramps up drive-thru coronavirus testing with 1,000 Google volunteers

Key Points
  • Verily says it has more than 1,000 volunteers from across Alphabet working on its COVID-19 screening and testing efforts as it readies a ramp-up across more regions.
  • In an interview with CNBC, Verily co-founder Jessica Mega said the company is considering integrating the screening process through wearables in the future.
  • Mega said there's an "opportunity" for Verily to understand the broader trends of how viruses like COVID-19 spread among communities.
Verily "drive-thru" testing site utilizes Google volunteers.

Alphabet's life sciences business Verily now has close to 1,000 volunteers from sister-company Google working across its COVID-19 screening and testing platform as it readies for a ramp-up.

The company also released a video explaining the screening and testing process, including its "drive-thru" testing, manned by the volunteers.

"People across Alphabet are volunteering time (and) I've never seen so much commitment to do the right thing," said Jessica Mega, chief medical and scientific officer at Verily who spoke with CNBC this week by phone. 

The ramp-up comes after the company started on a much smaller scale than the nationwide access President Trump and Google CEO Sundar Pichai hinted at in mid-March. Verily, which is the life sciences company that sits under the Alphabet umbrella, has been working closely on a state-level with the governor's office and is taking direction from public health officials as it scales. 

Verily's efforts are still small given the lack of availability of COVID-19 tests in California but it comes at a time when testing is critical to stopping the spread of the virus, which has hit states like California and New York hard. For now, the decision to test at-risk people via drive-thru sites is necessary until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration begins approving more at-home tests. Verily hopes the data it collects can help inform public health's response to the outbreak in California.

Verily's site, which screens for the new coronavirus and directs people to local testing locations, launched March 15 in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. On Monday, it expanded to Riverside and Sacramento Counties in California. Mega noted that the company would expand to further testing sites after hearing from state health officials about the locations most in need. 

Google launched a separate informational site late Friday night.

Mega said that as of Wednesday, Verily screened more than 20,000 residents, tested more than 1,200 and have "many hundred more" scheduled to test with the new sites in Riverside and Sacramento. It's a small number relative to the 67,000 total tests conducted in California as of Wednesday.

She said that now that the company has automated scheduling, it no longer needs workers and volunteers to call individuals back for scheduling. That should mean the sites can see many more people who suspect they have the coronavirus, and are at-risk, meaning they're older, pregnant or have a pre-existing health condition. 

She also noted that Verily is able to deploy in local regions immediately and are scaling quickly because of preparation work it's done around a potential health scare. "We spent several years building a system that enables secure storage of health information and that's why we employed the Project Baseline platform," she said. "It's purpose was built for something like this. We rapidly and responsibly were able to scale up."

Project Baseline, which launched in 2017, was designed to track research participants over time to see how their lifestyles impacted their health outcomes.

Thus far, Verily is offering on-site testing with a focus on those who are at-risk given the lack of availability of tests. But Mega said she's not ruling out home-testing approaches that are self-administered. "It really comes down to the most effective and safest way to be deployed," she said. "If there's an at home solution that could be integrated and the testing, [we're] not ruling it out if it's what they want."

She also gave a brief comment on the confusion of separating Verily's efforts from Google's COVID-19 efforts, but declined to give specifics. "Data collected in this program is separate and it's not mined with Google data or anything that," she said. "Google has a few other efforts ongoing."