Verily faces ethics questions over research at CEO’s clinic

Verily also is getting called out for selling data on research volunteers to pharma companies.

California Health & Lifestyle Institute

Andrew Conrad, CEO of Verily — formerly called Google Life Sciences — is under fire again, this time for reportedly steering a research contract to a high-end health clinic he holds a majority stake in. Verily also is getting called out for selling data on research volunteers to pharma companies.

STAT, a publication of Boston Globe Media, reported Thursday that ethicists are frowning on the clinic arrangement. Conrad’s California Health & Longevity Institute, a holistic wellness clinic and spa in “a setting of opulence” in Westlake Village, California, got the Verily contract despite having “no documented experience” with biotech research, according to STAT.

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Conrad defended the deal. As the publication reported:

Asked why he promoted his own clinic, he said, “Because I think it’s cool. Because it’s super efficient to have everything in one spot.” He said the clinic has all the testing equipment needed, so volunteers don’t have to make trips to more than one facility.

The California Health and Longevity Institute got the contract without competitive bidding. Conrad told Stat the deal was signed before Google parent Alphabet spun Verily out of Google X and into a separate company last August.

An anonymous ex-Verily employee told STAT that any vetting Google X performed on the clinic was “perfunctory.”

This circumstance, according to Charles Elson, director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, “raises all kinds of red flags,” or at least should for Alphabet. Elson suggested that Conrad could be harming Alphabet shareholders by personally benefiting from a company investment.

Another ethicist, Kirk O. Hanson, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, said that Verily’s board ought to approve such deals. But STAT reported that other than Conrad, the makeup of the board is not public; all that’s known is that each member is an employee of Alphabet or Verily.

STAT also raised the issue of whether Verily’s signature research project, called Baseline, has been up front about what it plans on doing with patient data. Verily hopes to enlist 10,000 research volunteers over the next five years. The story said:

It’s unclear whether Verily has informed volunteers of its plans to profit on their health data; the company declined to provide a copy of the consent agreement for volunteers tested at Conrad’s clinic.”

Access to that information could be priced at hundreds of millions of dollars per company, according to a former employee who worked on Baseline.

It doesn’t take a genius to know that the central business model of Google and its affiliated companies is mining and selling data.

Photo: California Health & Lifestyle Institute