Biden looks past anger at Silicon Valley to get help on vaccines

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President Joe Biden’s administration is considering a new approach as it struggles with a messy vaccine rollout — setting aside his harsh criticisms of the tech industry and taking Silicon Valley up on its latest offers to help fight the pandemic.

Amazon is pitching its expertise in IT and operations to help in vaccine distribution. Airbnb is suggesting it help create “vaccine depots” using its vast network of real estate across the country. And Google is looking to give free ad space to public health authorities.

While there are arguments about whether these are the most pressing needs, the potential boon to the vaccine effort is still large. Companies like Amazon are well placed to get the vaccine into exactly the right trusted churches, clinics and corner pharmacies, said Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“FEMA does not have that capacity. The National Guard does not have that capacity. Amazon might,” said Morrison, who served at the State Department during the Clinton administration.

And the White House is taking the idea seriously. Biden’s team said it is in talks with Amazon and other tech companies about how they can help — an echo of a year ago when the Trump administration requested Silicon Valley’s assistance with the early coronavirus response.

“We are consulting with many companies, including Amazon, about specific ways they can help execute the President’s national strategy against COVID,” White House spokesperson Kevin Munoz said. “Companies with logistics and technical expertise could help Americans get vaccinated more efficiently and more equitably.”

That’s a strikingly different tone from the one Biden took toward the tech industry during his campaign and through the early days of his administration. He has accused social media companies of allowing misinformation to run rampant and said Silicon Valley companies may be growing too powerful. He’s targeted Amazon in particular over taxes, saying the Seattle retail giant doesn’t pay its fair share (Amazon disputes that idea, saying it complies with existing tax laws). His Justice Department is also expected to continue pressing the major antitrust case that the Trump administration filed against Google.

But with his presidency arguably riding on the success of the vaccine rollout, Biden may not be able to afford to dismiss the tech industry’s help out of hand. It’s widely accepted that the U.S. response to the pandemic will be the metric against which voters measure his administration.

“A lot of the public is saying, ‘Get the private sector to do it.’ So if nothing else, you have to appear open to it,” said Hana Schank, who served in the U.S. Digital Service during the Obama administration and now heads strategy for a team at the think tank New America focused on the government’s use of technology.

But there’s no guarantee that cash-strapped, understaffed health agencies need the kind of help the tech industry is offering. Some public health leaders say they’ve been excluded from national strategy discussions and worry that the companies and the administration may be looking at the wrong targets — a complaint that also greeted last year’s attempt by Apple and Google to help track the coronavirus’ spread.

The major stumbling block at the moment is still vaccine supply; the Biden administration has stalled a $1 billion vaccine messaging campaign until there are more shots. And though the country is now averaging 1.5 million shots a day, increasing that rate depends on vaccine makers’ ability to accelerate complex manufacturing processes — and the extent to which states can shore up the messy online scheduling systems that are frustrating seniors and bypassing the communities hardest hit by the pandemic.

“Tech input won’t necessarily be the knight in shining armor,” said Oscar Alleyne, chief of programs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Instead, he said, public health departments might get more use out of additional money for their existing tech and response procedures.

For tech companies, there’s tremendous upside to being engaged in the federal government’s vaccine work. For one thing, of course, there’s the chance to save lives in a country that has been ravaged by the virus.

But it also provides companies an opportunity to boost their political reputations, and relations with the White House, after being bruised and battered during the Trump era.

Former President Donald Trump routinely criticized Amazon, most pointedly because its CEO, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post, a news outlet Trump alleged treated him unfairly. Trump also took multiple jabs at Silicon Valley, charging it with favoring liberals and silencing conservative messages. Lawmakers of both parties also joined in, with Democrats proposing antitrust law changes to make it easier to break up tech giants like Facebook, Google and Apple.

And one of the most ambitious efforts by tech companies to help fight the pandemic — the push by Apple and Google to develop digital contract tracing standards — largely fell flat amid a lack of coordination among states and an absence of federal guidelines under Trump.

Amazon drew criticism from the right over the idea that the company waited until Biden was sworn in to offer its assistance, an idea Amazon strongly rejected, saying it offered logistics help on the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed but was “redirected to the states.”

Other complications could make it difficult for even much-vaunted Silicon Valley companies to pull off quick wins on the vaccine front.

For example, strict federal contracting obligations meant to reduce fraud and waste, such as lengthy, required paperwork, could slow the pace of tech companies’ vaccine efforts.

Meanwhile, the federal government has to worry about the equitable distribution of the coronavirus vaccine across racial, geographical and other demographics.

Still, the companies are eager to show that they have the logistics and know-how to help.

Dave Clark, an Amazon executive widely credited with building the company’s delivery apparatus, sent a letter to Biden on Inauguration Day offering its much vaunted skills with distributing packages across the country, saying, “we are prepared to leverage our operations, information technology, and communications capabilities and expertise.”

Amazon spokesperson Jodi Seth confirmed that the company is talking to the Biden administration about vaccine rollout.

“We are committed to assisting governments with vaccination efforts as we work together to protect our workers and continue to provide essential services during the pandemic,” Seth said.

Some critics have worried that Amazon’s offer to help is an attempt to grab a role in public health work that it might not be willing to give up postpandemic. And Amazon is a frequent target of those pressuring Biden from the left to take, as president, the hard line on Silicon Valley he promised as a candidate. Biden has pledged to be “the most pro-union president,” for example, at a time when Amazon’s workers have complained about the company’s treatment and are pushing to organize.

The White House stressed that it’s talking to a range of companies, across industries, about pitching in on efforts to fight the pandemic.

And for tech, the pandemic response doesn’t just involve vaccine distribution. The administration said it is also talking to social media platforms about combating online misinformation about the novel coronavirus vaccine.

That’s even though Biden has been particularly vocal about the social media companies, arguing that their behavior is so egregious that the companies no longer deserve the liability shield known as Section 230. When asked last week what Biden planned to do about extremism in the United States, White House press secretary Jen Psaki pointed to the president’s outspokenness about “the role of hate speech on social media platforms.”

Facebook — which says it has also reached out to the Biden administration to offer assistance — announced in early February that it will crack down on vaccine misinformation, including by giving $120 million to public health authorities.

Airbnb is pitching its geographical reach. Just after Inauguration Day, the company offered to identify houses that could serve as vaccine distribution sites in places that are low on pharmacies or other permanent health care sites.

Chris Lehane, an Airbnb executive and former Clinton administration official, said in a statement that the company can play a role “similar to what we have historically done in terms of working with our hosts around the country who time and time again have opened their homes in times of need.”

Google has said it is opening up its corporate real estate as vaccination sites in conjunction with local health authorities and kicking in more than $150 million to, among other things, “promote vaccine education and equitable distribution.” The company is also marketing its cloud software tool to public health departments as a way to manage vaccine transportation.

Other tech companies are working on corporate partnerships to aid in vaccine work. Uber announced this week it was teaming up with Walgreens, including on free rides for vaccine recipients to those pharmacies.

Still, it’s not clear yet that tech companies are providing the help that the government needs.

Offers to provide software for scheduling or tracking vaccine supply and distribution will help only if they’re “targeted and customized on local needs” at clinics and public health departments, said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

And as Amazon, Google and others shop their software around, hospitals and clinics are unlikely to embrace any technology that could disrupt their pandemic response, said the University of Texas at Austin Health’s chief information officer, Aaron Miri.

“In Texas I have a 24-hour mandate to submit vaccine information to our state registry. There cannot be any ‘new’ tech that suddenly goes upstream that could potentially cause any delay,” he said.

Data sharing about vaccines among pharmacies, clinics, hospitals and public health departments is already fraught, NACCHO’s Alleyne said. “When you develop totally new systems without acknowledgment of what was done in the past … you’re going to run into some issues.”

That’s perhaps one reason Amazon has already run something of a proof-of-concept of its ability to be useful in vaccine distribution in its hometown of Seattle. In January, Amazon reached out to a local health chain, Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, and days later the two entities hosted a pop-up vaccination clinic in a 13,500-square-foot meeting space on Amazon’s downtown campus.

Amazon provided free parking and volunteers to help patients navigate the process. Those vaccinated got a sticker noting the time, and a giant overhead clock ticked down the 15-minute waiting period until patients could be safely released. The local NPR station likened it to “a vaccine delivery assembly line.”

“Amazon contacted Virginia Mason and said, ‘How can we work together? What can we do?’ And we embraced it,” said Gale Robinette, media relations manager at Virginia Mason. “Good for Amazon.”

That’s the sort of talk that Amazon would love to hear on the federal level, and it might just get its wish. The Biden White House said talks with the company were ongoing, but declined to give further details.

Already, Amazon is winning Twitter on this score, for whatever that’s worth. As the country has struggled with vaccine distribution, the platform has been rife with related jokes. Reads one such tweet, typical of the form, “If Amazon was handling vaccine distribution, we would all be vaccinated in 2 days.”

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