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IVAC’s VIRA Chatbot Receives Silver Anthem Award for Innovative Approach to Vaccine Communication


COVID-19 vaccine uptake has plateaued globally, largely in part due to rampant misinformation about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. To combat this phenomenon, IVAC launched VIRA, the COVID-19 vaccine chatbot, at the peak of the pandemic in July 2021. VIRA was developed in partnership with IBM Research with the goal of providing evidence-based, credible, and up-to-date information about the COVID-19 vaccines. The chatbot’s innovative technology was recently recognized by the Anthem Awards, which celebrate purpose and mission-driven work from people, companies, and organizations worldwide. Out of nearly 2,000 submissions from 43 countries, VIRA received a Silver award in the Health Innovations category.

Congrats to VIRA for winning the Silver award

VIRA’s innovative technology helps it stand out from other AI-based chatbots like ChatGPT. While other chatbots are generative, meaning they create their own text based on data from the web, VIRA retrieves its responses from a database containing COVID-19 vaccine information that was vetted by vaccine researchers. This system ensures that all vaccine information provided by VIRA is credible and therefore helps reduce the spread of harmful misinformation. VIRA’s response database is updated weekly to reflect the latest available evidence and data. Many other chatbots are menu-based, serving “menus” of predetermined questions for users to click through, while VIRA empowers the user by allowing them to ask their own questions and lead the conversation.

Through a collaboration with the National Association of County & City Health Officials (NACCHO), VIRA has partnered with health departments across the country to provide custom-branded versions of the chatbot that are embedded within each health department’s webpage. “VIRA uses natural language processing to understand and respond to community needs for health information,” says Smisha Agarwal, PhD, MBA, MPH, Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Executive Director of the Center for Global Digital Health Innovations. “It is an incredibly powerful tool that can assist health departments in their fight against misinformation to keep our communities safe.” Partnering with local health departments leverages the trust that local public health leaders have already built with the communities they serve, strengthening the credibility of the COVID-19 vaccine information provided by VIRA. Customized versions of the chatbot designed by VIRA’s frontend UX partner House9 have already been implemented in Los Angeles County and Charlotte, NC, with additional custom chatbots launching soon with health departments in Boston and Columbus, OH.

VIRA strives to make COVID-19 vaccine information accessible to all. Since its launch in July 2021, VIRA has engaged with more than 20,000 users and has responded to more than 50,000 messages about COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness, safety, evaluation, administration, and misinformation. The chatbot can respond to questions in both English and Spanish, with nearly 15% of users choosing to communicate in Spanish. Users can access VIRA through a browser or via WhatsApp, with more than 11,000 WhatsApp messages sent to date. Partners Meta and business service provider Vonage provided technical support as well as ad credits for the integration of VIRA technology with the WhatsApp platform to optimize engagement with Spanish-speaking community members.

Going forward, the innovative technology utilized by VIRA can be adapted to provide credible information about additional vaccines and potentially other health topics, and the chatbot can be tailored for communities that experience a disproportionate burden of disease and have a need for accurate information.

The VIRA Team: