California Gov. Gavin Newsom says tech companies are key to lifting coronavirus restrictions

By | April 18, 2020

Tech companies will be key to supporting California’s growing “army” of coronavirus contact tracers and ultimately reopening the state, Gov. Gavin Newsom told CNBC on Friday.

Newsom’s plan for reopening the state is highly dependent on the capacity to test widely for the virus and to conduct contact tracing, whereby personnel identify and track people who came into contact with an infected individual. He said California-based tech companies are key to the effort.

“We’re so pleased with the work Mark Zuckerberg has been doing to support the open access of appropriate data in an anonymized way, in a non-individual or personalized way, including Apple and Google and others,” he said on CNBC’s “Fast Money.” “That is really going to help us with the technology platforms to help us supplement or support the efforts of the individual tracers, an army that we’re all starting to build and train…”

Last week, Apple and Google announced a partnership  in which the two companies will work together to provide tools that will help track the spread of coronavirus. The tools from Apple and Google will enable app makers to use Bluetooth to let people know when they’ve come into contact with someone who has been diagnosed with coronavirus, a process called contact tracing.

If you have a phone and you cross paths with someone who ends up testing positive for the coronavirus, you may be alerted that you’ve come in contact with Covid-19.

Experts have started to call on the private sector to help follow the spread of coronavirus using so-called “syndromic surveillance,” a technique that can be used to track pandemics.

Tech companies are particularly well-positioned to do it, since most people in the U.S. own a phone where apps can be installed. And because government funding for syndromic surveillance has dried up.

Google’s site says the apps won’t collect personally identifiable information or user location data and “people who test positive are not identified to other users Google or Apple.” Apps will store location for about 14 days. The data will “only be used for contact tracing by public health authorities for COVID-19 pandemic management” Google says. 

Newsom acknowledged the reliance on tech companies is a big change for California, which has often led the nation with policy meant to protect data privacy from the state’s largest tech firms, including Facebook, Apple and Google, which he referred to on Friday as “incredible partners.”

“If I was talking to you last year, the big debate in this state and by extension this country was the work California was doing to lead in the privacy space,” he said. “We were referring to some of our data collectors as data frackers in a pejorative term.”

The state has brought on the Obama administration’s former chief data officer and chief technology officer to maintain oversight of data privacy as big tech companies become more involved in the effort to reopen the state, Newsom said. 

Beyond tech firms, Newsom touted the state’s relationship with biotech companies that are heavily involved in the race toward effective treatments and a vaccine for Covid-19. He specifically cited Foster City, CA-based Gilead, which is currently researching remdesivir, a promising Covid-19 therapeutic currently in human clinical trial.

He also mentioned Genentech, a subsidiary of Roche, which is manufacturing Covid-19 diagnostic tests. He said the state will be instrumental in not only the research, but also the manufacturing of viable treatments once they are authorized. 

“California with Gilead, not just researching and advancing the trials, but manufacturing here in California, Genentech⁠—birthplace of biotech, life sciences, innovation,” he said. “That is one of California’s great resources, so we hope we are at the front of that curve as well.”

⁠— CNBC’s Todd Haselton contributed to this report. 

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