VIRA joins the call on WhatsApp to combat vaccine disinformation

Johns Hopkins engineers built the chatbot to respond to common questions about COVID-19 shots.


This chat is with VIRA, the Vaccine Information Resource Assistant, which was built by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and deployed to WhatsApp in collaboration with Vonage.

Image: VIRA

Vonage, Johns Hopkins and WhatsApp have combined forces to get accurate vaccine information to users of the popular app. VIRA, the Vaccine Information Resource Assistant, started out as a web-based chatbot. With this new project, WhatsApp users can get answers to questions about the COVID-19 vaccines by texting  +1 410-401-0306.

Delta and Omicron continue to cause COVID infections and hospitalizations, and there’s still a large segment of the U.S. population that is not vaccinated, particularly among younger adults. As of December 2021, less than 60% of 18-14 year olds were vaccinated while only 54% of kids 12 – 17 are vaccinated. Twenty-seven percent of WhatsApp users are between 26 and 35 while 19% are between 15 and 25.

The VIRA chatbot was developed by the International Vaccine Access Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with experts from the Bloomberg School’s Department of International Health and Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering.

Joy Corso, CMO of Vonage, said in a press release that the company is proud to be partnering with Johns Hopkins.

“With the Vonage Messages API for WhatsApp, we are helping institutions like Johns Hopkins connect and engage with users from virtually anywhere, on-demand,” she said. 

The Vonage Messages API embeds the VIRA chatbot into WhatsApp, sending notifications, messages, and essential, targeted information in real time. VIRA uses natural language processing and machine learning capabilities from IBM’s Project Debater work to understand questions and provide immediate, expert-vetted answers and responses regarding COVID-19 vaccinations. The chatbot understands and responds on a range of topics including vaccine effectiveness, safety, eligibility and other mitigation measures, leveraging IBM Key Points adaptive technology to expand the range of issues covered over time.

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According to the VIRA FAQ, IBM researchers have been working on this project with the JHU team since December 2020, analyzing common concerns and queries related to the vaccines. The system is designed to learn from new conversations by detecting emerging concerns and learning new ways in which people express existing ones.

VIRA is a part of WhatsApp’s global COVID-19 Program. Since the start of the pandemic, WhatsApp has partnered with over 350 health authorities on helplines to connect people to  information around COVID-19 and the vaccines. 

“We are working with health ministries and governments around the world to help get their populations registered for vaccinations directly within WhatsApp,” said Christina LoNigro, WhatsApp Social Impact Initiatives lead, in a press release.

LoNigro said the company has worked with the CDC, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and health authorities in India, Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia.  

In April 2020, the government of Spain and Sngular, a Madrid-based international technology solutions provider, used the Vonage Messages API to build a COVID19 chatbot to reduce the calls into the Spanish National Health Service. The API also integrates with SMS, MMS and  social chat apps. Customers have used the Vonage Messages API for logistics and delivery notifications, travel alerts, healthcare reminders and banking.

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