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Friday, Oct 30, 2020

Coronavirus: internet giant Amazon begins building its own testing lab

Move comes after company began screening the temperature of each person arriving for work and distributing face masks

With an eye toward possibly testing all of its employees for coronavirus, shopping giant Amazon said Thursday it is building a testing lab.

“A team of Amazonians with a variety of skills – from research scientists and program managers to procurement specialists and software engineers – have moved from their normal day jobs onto a dedicated team to work on this initiative,” the Seattle-based company said in a corporate blog post.

“We have begun assembling the equipment we need to build our first lab and hope to start testing small numbers of our front line employees soon.”

Amazon, like other employers with lots of people still coming in to work, is scrambling to update its processes and procedures to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus within its facilities.

This week, it began screening the temperature of each person arriving for work and distributing face masks. Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, sporting a mask, had his temperature checked as he entered a fulfilment centre in a video the company shared Wednesday night on social media.

But with asymptomatic transmission of coronavirus, even symptom screening will not be enough to slow the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

“A next step might be regular testing of all employees, including those showing no symptoms,” Amazon said in announcing its testing lab. “Regular testing on a global scale across all industries would both help keep people safe and help get the economy back up and running.”

Amazon has offered its hourly employees up to two weeks of paid leave if they are diagnosed with Covid-19 or placed in quarantine. Some employees have reported difficulty in obtaining the paid leave due to bureaucratic hurdles and a lack of access to testing. Others raised the alarm weeks ago about a lack of temperature screening and other shortcomings.

The company pointed to ongoing testing shortages, particularly at the scale needed for the kind of population-wide surveillance public health experts say would be necessary to ease the stay-at-home orders.

While social distancing is showing signs of slowing the virus' spread, transmission could easily reaccelerate if it is not maintained, health officials and government leaders warn.

Amazon described its effort as “building incremental testing capacity” and acknowledged the uncertainty of the venture. “We are not sure how far we will get in the relevant time frame, but we think it's worth trying, and we stand ready to share anything we learn with others,” the company said.

Last month, Amazon lent capabilities of its Amazon Care medical service – launched in February for Seattle-area employees – to the Seattle Area Coronavirus Assessment Network, a surveillance program that provides residents with self-test kits.

Amazon has also put its cloud computing resources to work on several pandemic-related initiatives including an initial US$20 million in “in-kind credits and technical support” to research institutions using Amazon Web Services (AWS) for work toward diagnosis, treatment and vaccine development. The AWS Diagnostic Development Initiative focuses on development of rapid, accurate testing.

On Wednesday, the company rolled out a “centralised repository of up-to-date and curated data sets” including case tracking, hospital bed availability and academic research articles from organizations including Johns Hopkins, The New York Times and the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

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