Yesterday, Kaiser Health News reported that California's San Francisco and Alameda counties had "severed ties" with a highly publicized "Project Baseline" COVID-19 testing program supported by Alphabet's Verily Life Sciences.
In particular, the reporting focused on Verily-backed community testing sites located in Oakland that have been closed for months, one of which is now working to reopen with the support of a new testing vendor.
Those organizing the testing sites and other public health officials serving the surrounding communities highlighted long waits for results, data privacy concerns and tech-driven roadblocks chiefly affecting the underrepresented groups these sites were intended to support – for instance, the requirement of a Gmail account and disclosure of personal information regarding their health status.
“From where we sit, this is an old story,” Dr. Noha Aboelata, CEO of the Roots Community Health Center clinic in Oakland, which served as a Verily testing site, told Kaiser Health News. “Corporations that are not really invested in the community come helicoptering in, bearing gifts, but what they’re taking away is much more valuable.”
San Francisco and Alameda are no longer among the active testing locations listed on Project Baseline's website. When reached for comment on the news, however, Verily said that there were "inaccuracies" in the report, and characterized the closures as more of a pause and a redirection of resources.
"We are currently working with multiple counties in the Bay Area, and the counties of Alameda [and San Francisco], and [the] city of Oakland never severed ties with Verily," the company told MobiHealthNews in an email statement. "Many of the sites in these regions were established as short-term testing centers and not intended to operate for longer periods of time. The Allen Temple site in Oakland was donated by a local church for a finite period of time, for example. We were in the process of establishing a new site with [San Francisco], but were directed by the state to relocate that capacity to San Diego in the last week of September."
Verily's response also spoke to the accessibility of its mobile testing programs and its data protection practices. On the first point, the company highlighted its "Assisted Accounts" program, designed for those with limited access to the Internet, first deployed in May for those at mobile testing sites in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. (The report described the registration process as "chaotic for homeless people and others" in that area.)
In regard to privacy, the company told MobiHealthNews that it has worked "to go above and beyond specific regulatory frameworks." The company's website highlights its compliance with the FDA's Part 11, ISO 27001, the California Consumer Privacy Act and HIPAA.
MobiHealthNews has also reached out to the San Francisco and Alameda county health departments for comment, and will update this story with any response.
WHY IT MATTERS
Verily's work in the Bay Area made headlines during the early days of the U.S. COVID-19 response, being promoted by President Donald Trump and others as a key example of how public and private groups were working together to track the virus.
Shortly after, the company said that it was working with the California Governor's office to scale the program throughout the state. A representative of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services told Kaiser Health News that the state has so far paid Verily a collective $55 million in contracts for the testing services.
Much as it was back in March, easy access to testing is a key component to limiting COVID-19's spread. Further, the disproportionate availability of these services among different demographics and the worsened outcomes among Black, Hispanic and other ethnicities has been long documented by the CDC and HHS. Any evidence of a widespread testing program that isn't adequately reaching these communities or winning their trust would certainly give public health stakeholders a reason to think twice before contracting with the program.
As such, it's little surprise that Verily would want to defend its ability to provide effective COVID-19 testing services. Alongside the rest of California, its website lists well over 200 active testing sites across several other states: Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington.
At the same time, the company launched an enterprise COVID-19 offering in June called Healthy at Work that combines testing, symptom reporting and analytics for employers looking to bring staff back to work.
THE LARGER TREND
While much of Verily's time in the spotlight this year has centered on its COVID-19 testing services, the life science company does have a few other projects it's been working on in the meantime.
In August, for instance, Verily took a step into the health insurance game with the launch of a new venture back by Swiss Re Corporate Solutions. Called the Coefficient Insurance Company, the subsidiary is pitched as stop-loss insurance for self-funded employers. The company has also moved along with digital health research powered by its Study Watch wearable, and continued to support its Onduo digital diabetes management program.
Meanwhile, its sister company Google has also taken center stage in the digital contact-tracing space alongside Apple. The tech giants' recently updated Exposure Notification API has been adopted by several countries and an ever-growing number of U.S. states and territories.