Amazon is ramping up its plans to test its fulfillment center workers for Covid-19 after several outbreaks at its warehouses. The goal, according to three people familiar with the company’s plans, is to test the bulk of the company’s warehouse workers every two weeks.
Workers would test themselves with nasal swabs, using a video for guidance, with a clinical professional supervising. The move would require Amazon to roll out millions of tests throughout the summer. That’s in line with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ pronouncement in April, when he told shareholders that he hoped the company would soon begin “regular testing of all Amazonians, including those showing no symptoms.”
The people who spoke to CNBC asked not to be named discussing internal company matters. Amazon has already ramped up its testing of warehouse workers following outbreaks of Covid-19 in New York, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Oregon, among other states.
By ramping up Covid-19 testing, it is hoping to stem the spread of the virus before it gets out of control. The company previously said it would invest its expected Q2 profit of $4 billion into its Covid-19 response, and will spend $1 billion on testing throughout the year.
In addition to collecting nasal swabs, the company is planning to develop standalone diagnostic labs in several sites, starting off in Sunnyvale, California, and in Kentucky, the people said. These labs would analyze some of the samples to see if they’re positive or negative. Medical diagnostics has long been an area of interest for Amazon.
An Amazon spokesperson confirmed to CNBC that the company has launched a testing pilot program at a handful of fulfillment centers. The company declined to disclose which facilities have launched testing sites so far. It also declined to comment on whether it plans to test corporate employees for the coronavirus.
“We’ve started our first small-scale testing pilot,” an Amazon spokesperson told CNBC. “We don’t know exactly yet how it’s going to shape up, but we continue to believe it’s worth trying.”
To aid the process, Amazon has built a dedicated team that’s working to develop coronavirus testing capacity. The team is made up of research scientists, program managers, procurement specialists and software engineers — all essential personnel for building out new labs.
That team appears to be growing. Amazon’s hardware group Lab126, based in Sunnyvale, California, is hiring three additional research scientists in diagnostics to help scale its testing efforts, according to recent job postings. Lab126 is also hiring several lab assistants, engineers and scientists in Hebron, Kentucky.
Some of the key Amazon employees participating on calls with external partners about the project include Douglas Wiebel, a scientist and engineer who has been at the company for almost six years; Vin Gupta, a pulmonologist recruited to Amazon Care; Matt Wood, a general manager of artificial intelligence at Amazon AWS; and Taha Kass Hout, a former government health official also working for AWS.
Amazon is also looking at other mechanisms to test workers beyond nasal swabs. It’s exploring pulse oximetry screening, which measures oxygen levels in the blood, according to two of the people. Pulse oximeters, which are small devices that fit onto the fingertip, are suspected by some scientists to identify a subgroup of patients with respiratory symptoms. Amazon is also exploring more regular temperature checks.