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Big Tech Zeros In on the Virus-Testing Market


Verily Life Sciences, a sister company of Google, scrambled to introduce a free coronavirus-screening site for the public and set up testing locations in March after President Trump made an off-the-cuff announcement about the program. It had a rocky start, but has since helped more than 220,000 people get tested in 13 states.

Now, the company has its sights on employers. It is introducing a health screening and analytics service for businesses trying to safely reopen during the pandemic.

The service, announced on Thursday, will offer Covid-19 diagnostic testing for employees and clear them to return to the workplace based on their test results and other health data. It will also make recommendations to employers on how often workers should be retested, based on the prevalence of the virus in their work force and the local community.

“Employers are really focusing on how to ensure that they are not the source of another outbreak,” said Dr. Vivian Lee, the president of health platforms at Verily, a unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. “And that they do not wind up in a situation where they’re putting the safety of their employees at risk when they need to be back in an office or a workplace setting.”

With its new service, Verily is joining numerous tech giants and start-ups rushing to help business across the United States as they grapple with how to safely reopen the workplace. Microsoft and the large insurer UnitedHealth Group, for instance, recently collaborated on a free symptom-checking app that helps pinpoint workers at obvious risk for the virus and direct them to testing resources. On Tuesday, Fitbit introduced a program that includes a daily symptom-checking app for employees and a work force health-monitoring dashboard for employers.

Kogniz, an artificial intelligence start-up, is marketing thermal camera systems as coronavirus fever-screening and “social-distancing enforcement” tools for the workplace. And Jvion, another A.I. start-up, is marketing an “employer recovery package” to predict the risk of employee exposure to the virus and likelihood of developing it.

There is such a glut of new coronavirus risk-reduction products that many employers are scrambling to assess them all.

“A big market rose up overnight,” said Jeff Becker, a senior analyst for digital business strategy at Forrester, a market research firm, who recently surveyed two dozen vendors offering coronavirus solutions for employers. “But it’s a fractured ecosystem, much like traditional health care.”

To address the fragmented market, Verily and other health companies are introducing more comprehensive health-screening programs for employers, complete with Covid-19 lab tests and health counseling for employees who test positive. The new services are also trying to mitigate a pressing problem for employers: perhaps as many as one quarter or more of people who have the virus do not experience symptoms like fevers and coughs. That means symptom-checking apps and fever-scanning cameras could clear employees who have the virus to return to the workplace, where they might inadvertently infect their colleagues.

Color, a Bay Area health technology company whose labs are processing Covid-19 tests for the city of San Francisco, on Monday reported that, among a group of 30,000 people it tested for the virus, the majority of those who tested positive had mild or no symptoms.

“Things like fever checks, fever-screening — those things are actually not going to prevent transmission in a workplace setting,” said Caroline Savello, the chief commercial officer at Color, which recently introduced a testing program for employers.

Many medical centers, nursing homes and other high-risk facilities for essential workers have already adopted such employee-testing programs. Color’s program for businesses that are reopening involves testing employees for the virus at least once before they return to the workplace, and then testing asymptomatic employees again at regular intervals.

“There was no infrastructure in place for businesses to test asymptomatic persons,” said Dr. Sekar Kathiresan, the chief executive of Verve Therapeutics, a biotech company in Cambridge, Mass., that began using Color’s program in May in a pilot test with 11 other local biotech firms. The biotech employees visit a central site once a week to have their noses swabbed by a nurse practitioner, he said, at a cost of $130 per test. In 704 tests over the first month, he added, none of the employee had positive results.

“This gives our companies, our employees great peace of mind because they know that everybody that’s coming into the laboratory to do the research is negative,” Dr. Kathiresan said. ”So it’s an expense that is well worth it.”

He said he expected employee-testing costs to decrease significantly over time as home self-collection kits, which allow people to swab their own noses or collect saliva samples and then send them into labs, become more available.



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