The pandemic has taken a devastating toll on communities worldwide. While there is much uncertainty still ahead, the development of multiple safe vaccines in such a short time gives us reason for hope. Now the work begins to ensure that everyone can benefit from this triumph of scientific achievement, and quickly.
During the pandemic, Google has helped people get the information they need to keep their families safe and healthy. We’ve supported small businesses and partnered with Apple to build exposure notification technology to fight the spread of COVID-19 around the world. Now, as public health authorities ramp up vaccination efforts, we’re finding more ways to help.
We recognize that getting vaccines to people is a complex problem to solve, and we’re committed to doing our part. Today we’re announcing that we’re providing more than $150 million to promote vaccine education and equitable distribution and making it easier to find locally relevant information, including when and where to get the vaccine. We’ll also be opening up Google spaces to serve as vaccination sites as needed.
$150 million to promote vaccine education and equitable access
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve helped more than 100 government agencies and global non-governmental organizations run critical public service health announcements through our Ad Grants Crisis Relief program. Today, we’re announcing an additional $100 million in ad grants for the CDC Foundation, the World Health Organization, and nonprofits around the globe. We’ll invest another $50 million in partnership with public health agencies to reach underserved communities with vaccine-related content and information.
Our efforts will focus heavily on equitable access to vaccines. Early data in the U.S. shows that disproportionately affected populations, especially people of color and those in rural communities, aren’t getting access to the vaccine at the same rates as other groups. To help, Google.org has committed $5 million in grants to organizations addressing racial and geographic disparities in COVID-19 vaccinations, including Morehouse School of Medicine’sSatcher Health Leadership Institute and the CDC Foundation.
Highlighting authoritative information and local vaccination sites on Search & Maps
To help find accurate and timely information on vaccines, we’ve expanded our information panels on Search to more than 40 countries and dozens of languages, with more rolling out in the coming week. We’ll begin showing state and regional distribution information on Search so people can easily find when they are eligible to receive a vaccine. Soon we’ll launch a “Get The Facts” initiative across Google and YouTube to get authoritative information out to the public about vaccines.
Searches for “vaccines near me” have increased 5x since the beginning of the year and we want to make sure we’re providing locally relevant answers. In the coming weeks, COVID-19 vaccination locations will be available in Google Search and Maps, starting with Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, with more states and countries to come. We’ll include details like whether an appointment or referral is required, if access is limited to specific groups, or if it has a drive-through. We’re working with partners like VaccineFinder.org, an initiative of Boston Children’s Hospital, and other authoritative sources, such as government agencies and retail pharmacies, to gather vaccination location information and make it available.
Opening our spaces for vaccination clinics
To help with vaccination efforts, starting in the United States, we’ll make select Google facilities—such as buildings, parking lots and open spaces—available as needed. These sites will be open to anyone eligible for the vaccine based on state and local guidelines. We’ll start by partnering with health care provider One Medicaland public health authorities to open sites in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area in California; Kirkland, Washington; and New York City, with plans to expand nationally. We’re working with local officials to determine when sites can open based on local vaccine availability.
Using our technology to improve vaccine distribution
Google Cloud is helping healthcare organizations, retail pharmacies, logistics companies, and public sector institutions make use of innovative technologies to speed up delivery of vaccines. For example, logistics companies are using our AI to optimize trucking operations by adapting to traffic or inclement weather, and detect temperature fluctuations during transport. Once vaccines reach their destination, our tools help facilitate pre-screening, scheduling, and follow up. And our Intelligent Vaccine Impact Platform is helping states like New York and North Carolina manage distribution and forecast where vaccines, personal protective equipment, and hospital staffing will be most needed.
The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected every community all over the world. It’s also inspired coordination between public and private sectors, and across international borders, on a remarkable scale. We can’t slow down now. Getting vaccines to billions of people won’t be easy, but it’s one of the most important problems we’ll solve in our lifetimes. Google will continue to support in whatever way we can.
For the last eight months we’ve been working with Apple on the Exposure Notifications System (ENS) to help public health authorities in their efforts to contain COVID-19. We wanted to provide an update on this work.
Saving lives at all levels of adoption
Since May, when this technology became available, public health authorities have launched Exposure Notifications in more than 50 countries, states and regions—an average of two apps each week. This week, California became the latest U.S. state to launch an app using ENS, joining the list of regions who have already made apps available.
By simply downloading your regional app, you can help public health authorities in their efforts to control COVID-19. There’s plenty of evidence that people are doing this: 40 percent of the population in the UK and 17 percent of the population in Uruguay have downloaded the app. In the United States, 20 percent of Colorado and 53 percent of Washington D.C. have enabled EN. There are other anecdotal signs that the system is helping: In September, the Prime Minister of Finland, Sanna Marin, received an exposure notification, and in November, the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, had been infected and used Exposure Notifications to alert staff members who may have been exposed.
Research has revealed that exposure notifications can “save lives at all levels of uptake” and showed that a staff dedicated to working on contact tracing combined with 15 percent of the population using exposure notifications could reduce infections by 15 percent and deaths by 11 percent. In Ireland, early reports from their app indicated there were hundreds of EN notifications from people who had uploaded positive test results. A recent pilot in Spain showed that it could detect almost twice as many potential infections than manual contact tracing.
Apple and Google’s framework offers a backbone for building privacy-centered apps for rapid exchange of data that can help protect and save lives.Judy Monroe
MD, President and CEO, CDC Foundation
Evolving based on feedback
Exposure Notifications became available to public health agencies in May to build apps on both Android phones and iPhones. It was built on feedback resulting from more than one hundred technical briefings with state public health officers, state epidemiologists, and where appropriate, their commissioned app developers. Major public health organizations that have been consulted include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC Foundation, the Association of Public Health Laboratories, the American Public Health Association, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, and the Task Force for Global Health.
In July, based on feedback, we published some updates to ENS including the reference verification server, implementation code, and telemetry design. Since then, U.S. public health authorities that have not yet designed their own apps and want more support in launching an app can use Exposure Notifications Express. This reduces the time it takes public health authorities to develop an app by simply providing Google and Apple with a configuration file, which is then used to provide exposure notifications. Many of these apps in the United States work together so that if you travel across state lines you can still get exposure notifications. The Association of Public Health Laboratories made this possible by hosting a national key server and they offer a list of interoperable U.S. apps. We want to be flexible and support whatever approach works best on a country by country level.
The goal of this project is to assist public health authorities in their efforts by enabling exposure notification in a privacy-preserving manner. We will continue to work with them to help you protect yourself and your community during this pandemic and we plan to keep you updated here with new information again next year.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, teams across Google have worked to provide quality information and resources to help keep people safe, and to provide public health, scientists and medical professionals with tools to combat the pandemic. We’ve launched more than 200 new products, features and initiatives—including the Exposure Notification API to assist contact tracing—and have pledged over $1 billion to assist our users, customers and partners around the world.
As the world turns its focus to the deployment of vaccines, the type of information people need will evolve. Communities will be vaccinated at an unprecedented pace and scale. This will require sharing information to educate the public, including addressing vaccine misperceptions and hesitance, and helping to surface official guidance to people on when, where and how to get vaccinated.
Today, we’re sharing about how we’re working to meet these needs—through our products and partnering with health authorities—while keeping harmful misinformation off our platforms.
Raising authoritative information
Beginning in the United Kingdom, we’re launching a new feature on Search so when people look up information for COVID-19 vaccines, we will surface a list of authorized vaccines in their location, as well as information panels on each individual vaccine. As other health authorities begin authorizing vaccines, we’ll introduce this new feature in more countries.
Launched in March, our COVID-19 information panels on YouTube have been viewed 400 billion times, making them an important source of authoritative information. These panels are featured on the YouTube homepage, and on videos and in search results about the pandemic. Updates to the panels will connect people directly to vaccine information from global and local health authorities. Because YouTube creators are a trusted voice within their communities, we’re also supporting creators by connecting them with leading health experts to make helpful and engaging content for their audiences about COVID-19 and vaccines.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve given $250 million in Ad Grants to help more than 100 government agencies around the world run critical public service announcements about COVID-19. Grantees can use these funds throughout 2021, including for vaccine education and outreach campaigns, and we’re announcing today an additional $15 million in Ad Grants to the World Health Organization (WHO) to assist their global campaign.
Supporting quality reporting and information on vaccines
Journalism continues to play a crucial role in informing people about the pandemic, sharing expert knowledge about vaccines, and proactively debunking misinformation about the immunization process. In April, we gave $6.5 million to support COVID-19 related fact-checking initiatives, which have provided training or resources to nearly 10,000 reporters around the world.
Now, the Google News Initiative is providing an additional $1.5 million to fund the creation of a COVID-19 Vaccine Media Hub and support new fact-checking research. Led by the Australian Science Media Centre, and with support from technology non-profit Meedan, the hub will be a resource for journalists, providing around-the-clock access to scientific expertise and research updates. The initiative includes science media centers and public health experts from Latin America, Africa, Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific region, with content being made available in seven languages.
To better understand what type of fact-checking can effectively counteract misinformation about vaccines, we’re funding research by academics at Columbia, George Washington and Ohio State universities. This research project will survey citizens in ten countries to find out what kinds of formats, headlines and sources are most effective in correcting COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and whether fact checks that follow these best practices impact willingness to get vaccinated.
Protecting our platforms against misinformation
Across our products, we’ve had long-standing policies prohibiting harmful and misleading medical or health-related content. When COVID-19 hit, our global Trust and Safety team worked to stop a variety of abuses stemming from the pandemic: phishing attempts, malware, dangerous conspiracy theories, and fraud schemes. Our teams have also been planning for new threats and abuse patterns related specifically to COVID-19 vaccines. For example, in October, we expanded our COVID-19 medical misinformation policy on YouTube to remove content about vaccines that contradicts consensus from health authorities, such as the Centers for Disease Control or the WHO. Our teams have removed more than 700,000 videos related to dangerous or misleading COVID-19 medical information. We also continue to remove harmful COVID-19 misinformation across other products like Ads, Google Maps, and the Play store.
The fight against the pandemic and the development of new vaccines has required global collaboration between the public health sector, and the scientific and medical communities. As work begins to vaccinate billions of people, we’ll support these efforts with additional products and features to ensure people have the right information at the right time.
COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of research in providing information about disease and treatments. However, it’s challenging for researchers to recruit enough volunteers so that studies are representative of the general population. To make it easier for leading research institutions to connect with potential study participants, we’re introducing the Google Health Studies app with the first study focused on respiratory illness.
With the new app, anyone with an Android phone can take part in health studies by answering survey questions and contributing relevant data. The app provides a platform for researchers to reach a large and diverse population so they can better understand human health, while providing the public with greater opportunities to contribute to medical research.
Keeping participant data private, safe and secure
In building the app we focused on three principles: keeping information safe, treating it responsibly, and putting participants in control. When participants use the Google Health Studies app, their data is protected with Google’s advanced security. All information is encrypted and research data is stored securely.
We also give participants transparency and control over their personal information. For each study, participants can clearly see what data is being contributed, and when and why it’s shared. To protect participants’ personal information we adhere to strict privacy policies. Study data will only be used for the purposes that are explicitly consented to in the research study and will not be sold, shared with advertisers, or be used to show participants ads. The Google Health Studies app also makes it easy for participants to understand their contributions to each study, as well as access research findings when they become available.
Studying respiratory illnesses
We’ve partnered with researchers from Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital for the first study, which will help scientists and public health communities better understand respiratory illnesses, including influenza and COVID-19.
This Respiratory Health Study will be open to adults in the U.S., and will focus on identifying how these types of illnesses evolve in communities and differ across risk factors such as age, and activities such as travel. Study participants will use the Google Health Studies app to regularly self-report how they feel, what symptoms they may be experiencing, any preventative measures they’ve taken, and additional information such as COVID-19 or influenza test results. By taking part in this study, volunteers can represent their community in medical research, and contribute to global efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With COVID-19 emerging alongside seasonal respiratory pathogens, research is now needed more than ever to develop more effective treatments and mitigation strategies,” says Dr. John Brownstein, professor at Harvard Medical School and Chief Innovation Officer of the Boston Children’s Hospital. “Google Health Studies provides people with a secure and easy way to take part in medical research, while letting researchers discover novel epidemiological insights into respiratory diseases.”
In collaboration with Google Research, this first study utilizes federated learning and analytics—a privacy technology that keeps a person’s data stored on the device, while allowing researchers to discover aggregate insights based on encrypted, combined updates from many devices. This means researchers in this study can examine trends to understand the link between mobility (such as the number of daily trips a person makes outside the home) and the spread of COVID-19, This same approach powers typing predictions on Gboard, without Google seeing what individuals type.
The Google Health Studies app is now available in the Google Play Store, and we’re inviting people to download the app to join this initial study. We look forward to partnering with health researchers and to making it possible for more people to participate in these important studies.
When patients prepare for a medical visit, they’re more likely to have a high quality, efficient encounter and better physical and mental health outcomes. Starting today, we’re piloting a new tool that helps people prepare for visits by surfacing common questions they may have about their care–available when people find a local doctor’s office or hospital on Search.
Built in collaboration with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, our tool helps people build a visit plan by selecting from evidence-based questions like, “What is this test for?” as well as adding their own questions. When they’re finished, they can print or email the visit plan and bring it to the doctor’s office to help them remember important questions they want to ask. The visit plan also includes a reminder of things patients should bring to the visit, like a list of current medications, recent lab results, and their insurance card. The tool is private and secure: Google does not store any of the information.
Ten questions for more engaged care
The suggested questions, developed by AHRQ as part of its “Questions are the Answer” initiative, are designed to get people thinking about their goals and priorities for the visit. They’re based on findings from dozens of patient safety research projects as well as AHRQ’s expertise on diagnostic testing and results, medication safety, safe transitions between care settings, and the importance of patient and family engagement in healthcare.
“Patients who prepare for medical visits by prioritizing their questions, strengthen their role as members of their own health care team,” said Jeffrey Brady, M.D., M.P.H., a preventive medicine physician and Director of the Center for Quality Improvement and Patient Safety at the AHRQ. Dr. Brady added, “This helps clinicians maximize their time with patients so they can better address their most critical health needs. Clinicians appreciate that healthcare can be more efficient, effective, and higher quality when they work together with patients.”
Protecting health information
People come to Google for health-related information every day, and we’re committed to helping them get the information they need along their healthcare journey. The tool does not gather any personal health information or store any of the information that is entered into the tool. People have the option to print or email their visit plan, and people can use this tool without signing into a Google account. This tool is in a pilot phase and is currently available to a limited number of people in the United States and will expand to more users over time.
Healthcare can be confusing and overwhelming, but simply thinking about goals before meeting with a clinician can have a huge impact on patient experience and health outcomes. With the visit planning tool, we hope more people will effectively plan for medical visits, get more out of their visits and ultimately achieve better health outcomes.
Amo el Día de Acción de Gracias. Es un momento para estar con tus seres queridos, comer comida fabulosa y compartir recuerdos. En mi familia, mi madre siempre hizo del día festivo un momento en el que recibíamos en nuestra casa a personas que no tenían ningún otro lugar adónde ir ese día. Y luego dábamos largas caminatas por la tarde después de nuestra gran cena.
Con las infecciones por COVID-19 aumentando a niveles récord en los Estados Unidos, las familias están cambiando la forma en que celebran el Día de Acción de Gracias este año. Como muchas otras cosas en 2020, tendremos que desarrollar tradiciones nuevas y creativas para reemplazar las que ponen a quienes amamos en riesgo de COVID.
Este año, sigue los consejos de los Centros para el Control y la Prevención de Enfermedades y evita las grandes reuniones familiares.
Esta enfermedad es muy contagiosa y reunirse físicamente con la familia extendida es un riesgo real. Cada evento que reúne a personas crea una nueva oportunidad de transmisión. A menudo me preguntan: “¿No puedo hacerme una prueba de COVID y luego ver a mi familia?” Desafortunadamente, la respuesta que le doy a mis amigos y familiares es un “No” inequívoco. Las pruebas suelen ser negativas en las primeras etapas del curso de la enfermedad, lo que significa que puede dar negativo hoy pero ser muy infeccioso mañana. Entonces, incluso si tienes una prueba negativa, practica aún estas medidas. La mejor manera de demostrar tu amor es no tener una gran reunión familiar.
Hay muchas formas de celebrar a distancia. Puedes realizar videollamadas con amigos y familiares desde la mesa de Acción de Gracias. Podrías pasar tiempo en persona al aire libre a distancia, usando máscaras y evitando compartir platillos. Incluso he oído hablar de algunas familias que se han vuelto creativas al ofrecer “recoger en la acera” su emblemático pastel de calabaza, cazuela de ejotes o aderezo de ostras para que los seres queridos lo recojan y disfruten en la seguridad de sus propios hogares.
Consejos para celebrar el Día de Acción de Gracias de forma segura
Los Centros para el Control y la Prevención de Enfermedades han compartido algunos consejos sobre cómo celebrar el Día de Acción de Gracias este año y limitar la propagación del COVID-19.
Mantén las reuniones pequeñas
Celebra virtualmente si puedes
Este año, mi familia inmediata está planeando una pequeña comida en nuestro hogar seguida de una breve visita al aire libre a nuestra abuela. También tendremos un Friendsgiving virtual con amigos de todo el país, que en realidad nos permite compartir recuerdos con más personas de las que solemos compartir. Extrañaré las comidas, los abrazos y las risas en persona, pero estoy dispuesta a sacrificar eso por este año para que podamos tener muchos más recuerdos juntos en los próximos años.
Aunque este ha sido un año difícil para muchos en todo el mundo, se que tengo mucho que agradecer por estos días festivos. Estoy agradecida por mis colegas médicos: los médicos, enfermeras, técnicos en terapia pulmonar y otros socorristas que trabajarán en el Día de Acción de Gracias para atender a los pacientes con COVID-19. Estoy agradecida por mis colegas de salud pública que han trabajado incansablemente durante casi un año para mantenernos a salvo, como lo hacen incluso cuando las pandemias no están en auge.
Estoy agradecida por los muchos socorristas no reconocidos que trabajan para asegurarse de que tengamos agua potable para beber, alimentos y electricidad para iluminar y calentar nuestros hogares. Estoy particularmente agradecido por los científicos comprometidos que han avanzado en investigaciones sólidas para que tengamos tratamientos eficaces y seguros, y sí, vacunas contra COVID a la vista. Nos están dando tanto optimismo sobre el potencial de contramedidas sólidas para poner fin a esta pandemia.
Y estoy agradecida por todos los que ponen la salud pública como una prioridad y hacen todo lo posible para NO ser un eslabón en la cadena de transmisión del COVID. Sé que todos están cansados y quieren volver a la normalidad, o al menos a una nueva normalidad. Pero animo a todos a que sean pacientes y busquen dentro de sí la resistencia que nos ayude a superar estos próximos meses. Ahora no es el momento de ceder, es el momento de redoblar. Si el progreso científico continúa, entonces para esta temporada el próximo año podríamos tener reuniones familiares con aquellos a quienes amamos.
Este Día de Acción de Gracias, veo que quedarse en casa es la mejor forma de agradecer y mostrar amor a tu familia.
I love Thanksgiving. It’s a time to be with those you love, eating fabulous food and sharing memories. In my family, my mother always made the holiday a time when we welcomed people into our home who had nowhere else to go that day. And then we’d take long afternoon walks after our big meal.
With COVID-19 infections rising to record levels across the U.S, families are changing how they celebrate Thanksgiving this year. Like much else in 2020, we’ll need to develop new and creative traditions to replace the ones that put those we love at risk for COVID.
This year, please follow the tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and avoid large family gatherings.
This disease is highly contagious and getting together physically with extended family is a real risk. Every event that brings people together creates yet another chance for transmission. I’m often asked, “Can’t I just get a COVID test and then see my family?” Unfortunately, the answer I give my friends and family is an unequivocal “No.” Tests are often negative early in the course of disease, which means you can test negative today but be highly infectious tomorrow. So even if you have a negative test, still practice these measures. The best way to show your love is to not have a big family gathering.
There are many ways to celebrate from a distance. You can video call friends and family from the Thanksgiving table. You could spend in-person time outdoors at a distance, wearing masks and avoiding shared dishes. I have even heard of some families even getting creative offering “curbside pickup” of their signature pumpkin pie, green bean casserole or oyster dressing for loved ones to pick up and enjoy in the safety of their own homes.
Tips for celebrating Thanksgiving safely
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shared some tips on how you could celebrate Thanksgiving this year and limit the spread of COVID-19:
Wear a mask
Keep gatherings small
Celebrate virtually if you can
This year, my immediate family is planning a small meal with just our household followed by a brief, outdoor visit with our grandmother. We will also have a virtual Friendsgiving with friends across the country, which is actually allowing us to share memories with more people than we usually do. I will miss the meals, hugs and in-person laughter, but am willing to sacrifice that for this one year so we can have many more memories together in years to come.
Though this has been a difficult year for so many around the world, I find I have much to be grateful for this holiday. I am thankful for my medical colleagues—the doctors, nurses, respiratory techs and other responders who are going to work on Thanksgiving to care for COVID-19 patients. I am thankful for my public health colleagues who have worked tirelessly for nearly a year to keep us safe, as they do even when pandemics aren’t raging.
I am thankful for the many unsung first responders working to see that we have safe water to drink, food to eat and electricity to light and heat our homes. I am particularly thankful for the committed scientists who have advanced sound research so we have efficacious and safe treatments, and yes, COVID vaccines in sight. They are giving us so much optimism about the potential for robust countermeasures to bring this pandemic to an end.
And I am thankful for everyone who is putting the public’s health as a priority, and doing all they can to not be a link in the chain of COVID transmission. I know everyone is weary and wants to go back to normal, or at least a new normal. But I encourage everyone to be patient and dig deep inside for the stamina to carry us through these next few months. Now is not the time to let up—it is a time to double down. If scientific progress continues, then by this time next year we might be able to have family gatherings with those we love.
This Thanksgiving, I see staying home as the ultimate form of giving thanks and showing love to your family.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Karen DeSalvo, Google Health’s chief health officer, has been a trusted source for learning about its impact and implications. She’s advised Google teams on everything from how to respond to the pandemic in our own workplaces, to how we can build products and features that help everyone navigate COVID-19, such as the COVID-19 layer in Maps. Recently, we shared an update on how we’re doing just that, as well as helping businesses around the world get back up and running.
With lots of discussion worldwide about COVID-19 vaccines, today we published for our employees an interview with Dr. Karen about this topic. We’re sharing a version of that interview more broadly in case it’s helpful or informative for others to read.
As the former director of the United States’ national vaccine program, Dr. Karen is intimately familiar with the subject of vaccines. In this interview, she tells us more about what happens in a vaccine trial, when we can expect to have access to one and what it takes to vaccinate the entire world’s population in record time—a feat the human race has never before undertaken.
Let’s start with the basics. How are vaccines created?
It’s a rigorous scientific process. It typically involves starting with a concept in animal models to understand if we can identify proteins on an infectious agent, and then simulating a body’s immune system to create a response. Vaccines move through a series of defined phases to test their safety and efficacy in humans. These trials are very large and involve thousands of subjects, and the results lead to a regulatory process that will differ country to country. Then comes the approval process, and then they’re manufactured and deployed.
It sounds like it could take years for all of that to happen.
For COVID, some of these steps are happening in parallel rather than serially. We’re already manufacturing vaccines that have not yet finished their clinical trials. If they don’t meet the bar for safety and efficacy, they will be disposed of. Deployment of the first generation of approved vaccines will have some challenges. They will require special cold storage at all times, including in transit and warehousing, at -73 degrees Fahrenheit. This may mean they will only be available at specialized centers that have that kind of freezer system. But over time, it’s expected that they will become easier to deploy and administer.
For those of us who haven’t been following every detail in the news, when can we expect to have a COVID-19 vaccine available?
Based upon the pace of science, we’re anticipating that in the U.S. there will be an approved vaccine this winter, and very near that for other parts of the world. More than 200 vaccines are in development, and more than 40 are in human trials. There are two leading candidates in the U.S.—one of them made by Pfizer, and one by Moderna. Pfizer just released some preliminary data this week; they will still need to go through the formal scientific and regulatory review with final results. Other vaccines people should be paying attention to are the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, based in the U.K., and one made by Johnson & Johnson. But there is a lot of exciting science in this area, and the New York Times keeps a great tracker.
You’ve said before that once a vaccine is available, though, it will not be like flipping a switch.
It will take years to get the world vaccinated. This has never been done before at the pace we are attempting. There will be different “generations” and types of COVID vaccines as the science evolves. They all come with their own special characteristics and may target special populations. Those which come out early will likely require two doses, and it will take six weeks until you build sufficient immunity. Another important point: The conventional wisdom is that more advanced vaccines are expected to reduce symptoms and spread, but not fully prevent or eliminate disease. The vaccines in the current pipeline are designed to prevent disease rather than prevent infection; it’s more like the influenza vaccine—you might still get it, but it will be a less serious case. This means that in reality, we will all have to integrate vaccines as another layer into our public health hygiene, like masking and social distancing.
Who’s participating in vaccine trials right now?
People around the world have been enthusiastically signing up to participate. My husband is one of them! When he got a call from our local health care system, he marched himself over there and enrolled in the trial. He’s an ER doctor, and he’ll want to get vaccinated because of his ongoing exposure to COVID patients. The trials are randomized, controlled and double-blind: when he got his shot, the nurse turned her head so she couldn’t see what it looked like, and he couldn’t look, either. You sign up through a website, and if you’re eligible, you get a call. Generally, people have to be 18 or older to participate as a volunteer, but the studies are looking for volunteers of all backgrounds and identities.
It wasn’t too long ago that we learned that a late-stage clinical trial for a vaccine was paused due to an “unexplained illness” in a volunteer. Can you tell us what that means?
When there is any kind of abnormal event, the trial Data Safety and Monitoring Board gets a chance to pause and make sure it isn’t a consequence of the drug. So, a pause like that one means good news; it shows the scientific process is working. There have now been two phase-three clinical trials that have been paused due to a potential event. Both have resumed. Don’t be surprised if it happens again. But there’s nothing so far that indicates there’s a problem with these vaccines. People enrolled in trials will still have the normal life course of health events. I know firsthand that the scientists who work on this are extraordinarily ethical, highly capable and really hard workers.
Lastly, the question that’s on everyone’s mind: Does any of this give us a clearer sense of when we might be able to get these vaccines ourselves?
If everything continues to roll out the way we think it will, the general population would begin having access to a COVID vaccine by late spring or early summer 2021. That’s pending the manufacturing, that we have enough supplies like medical glass and dry ice, and that we’ve figured out how to manage the cold chain expectations. We should all be encouraged by the degree of global cooperation, including the focus on ensuring low- and middle-income countries and communities have access.
More than 18 million new cancer cases are diagnosed globally each year, and radiotherapy is one of the most common cancer treatments—used to treat over halfof cancers in the United States. But planning for a course of radiotherapy treatment is often a time-consuming and manual process for clinicians. The most labor-intensive step in planning is a technique called “contouring” which involves segmenting both the areas of cancer and nearby healthy tissues that are susceptible to radiation damage during treatment. Clinicians have to painstakingly draw lines around sensitive organs on scans—a time-intensive process that can take up to seven hours for a single patient.
Technology has the potential to augment the work of doctors and other care providers, like the specialists who plan radiotherapy treatment. We’re collaborating with Mayo Clinic on research to develop an AI system that can support physicians, help reduce treatment planning time and improve the efficiency of radiotherapy. In this research partnership, Mayo Clinic and Google Health will work to develop an algorithm to assist clinicians in contouring healthy tissue and organs from tumors, and conduct research to better understand how this technology could be deployed effectively in clinical practice.
Mayo Clinic is an international center of excellence for cancer treatment with world-renowned radiation oncologists. Google researchers have studied how AI can potentially be used to augment other areas of healthcare—from mammographies to the early deployment of an AI system that detects diabetic retinopathy using eye scans.
In a previous collaboration with University College London Hospitals, Google researchers demonstrated how an AI system could analyze and segment medical scans of patients with head and neck cancer— similar to how expert clinicians would. Our research with Mayo Clinic will also focus on head and neck cancers, which are particularly challenging areas to contour, given the many delicate structures that sit close together.
In this first phase of research with Mayo Clinic, we hope to develop and validate a model as well as study how an AI system could be deployed in practice. The technology will not be used in a clinical setting and algorithms will be developed using only de-identified data.
While cancer rates continue to rise, the shortage of radiotherapy experts continues to grow as well. Waiting for a radiotherapy treatment plan can be an agonizing experience for cancer patients, and we hope this research will eventually support a faster planning process and potentially help patients to access treatment sooner.
A research team at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has been working to make epidemiological forecasting as universal as weather forecasting. When COVID hit, they launched COVIDcast to develop data monitoring and forecasting resources that can help public health officials, researchers, and the public make informed decisions.
Last month, CMU received $1 million from Google.org and a team of thirteen Google.org Fellows to work pro bono for six months to help continue building out COVIDcast. This was part of Google.org’s $100 million commitment to COVID relief.
We caught up with Ryan Tibshirani, a research lead at CMU, to learn more about the project and what the Google.org fellows will work on.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a faculty member at CMU, jointly appointed in Statistics and Machine Learning, and I’m very interested in epidemiological forecasting and tracking. In 2012, I cofounded Delphi centered on this topic with Roni Rosenfeld, Professor and Head of Machine Learning at CMU.
What do you focus on most these days?
Since the pandemic began I’ve spent all of my time on COVID-19 research. Delphi has quadrupled the number of researchers in just eight months and we’re laser-focused on COVID. Leading Delphi’s pandemic response effort has been both a challenge—I’ve never done anything like this before—and a joy—the group is full of amazing people.
How did you come up with the idea for COVIDcast?
To back up just a bit: Roni and I formed Delphi in 2012 with the goal to develop the theory and practice of epidemiological forecasting, primarily for seasonal influenza in the U.S. We want this technology to become as universally accepted and useful as today’s weather forecasting.
Our forecasting system has been a top performer at the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) annual forecasting challenges, and last year Delphi Group was named one of the two Centers of Excellence for Influenza Forecasting. I like to think of COVIDcast as a replica of what we’ve done for the flu but better and faster.
Break it down for us, what is COVIDcast?
The COVIDcast project is about building and providing an ecosystem for COVID-19 tracking and forecasting. Our aim is to support informed decision-making at federal, state, and local levels of government, in the healthcare sector, and beyond.
The project has many parts:
Unique relationships with tech and healthcare partners that give us access to data with different views of pandemic activity in the U.S;
Code and infrastructure to build new, geographically-detailed, continuously-updated COVID-19 indicators;
A historical database of all indicators, including revision tracking;
A public API that serves new indicators daily, along with interactive maps and graphics to display them;
And lastly, modeling work that builds on the indicators to improve nowcasting and forecasting the spread of COVID-19.
A key element of COVIDcast is that we make all of our work as open and accessible as possible to other researchers and the public to help amplify its impact. We share both our data and a range of software tools—from data processing and visualization to sophisticated statistical tools.
How will the Google.org funding and fellowship help?
This support will help Delphi expand our efforts to provide a geographically-detailed view of various aspects of the pandemic and to develop an early warning system for health officials, for example, when the number of cases in a locale are expected to rise. There will be more pandemics and epidemics after COVID-19. We want to be prepared, and we believe Delphi’s work can help us do that.
The Google.org Fellowship just kicked off. What are you most excited about?
Everything! We’re excited to embed all the Google.org Fellows—engineers, user experience designers and researchers, program and product managers—into our workstreams. We hope they can help accelerate our progress and introduce us to leading industry product and software development techniques. Each and every one of the fellows has special skills that will be put to good use. We can’t wait to see what we can achieve, together.
More broadly, what role does the tech sector play in COVID-19 response efforts?
An enormous role. The tech sector is uniquely positioned to provide data and platforms that even governments can’t provide. It also has the skills and experience to quickly assemble large-scale systems, in real time. Google has been extraordinarily helpful to us on all of these fronts.