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Google launches multimillion-dollar cloud tech push to boost Covid-19 vaccine distribution

Tech giant Google is ploughing millions of dollars into initiatives to bolster the availability of Covid-19 vaccines and make it easier for people to access information about immunisation programmes

Google is embarking on a multi-pronged push across several business units to make it easier for people around the globe to access the Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine.

These efforts include stumping up funds to ensure people in lower-income countries can access vaccines, providing millions of dollars’ worth of free online Google ad space to entities concerned with driving up Covid-19 immunisation rates across the world, and using its cloud and artificial intelligence (AI) tech expertise to make vaccine-related information more accessible.  

The latter work includes the development and deployment of a Google Cloud-engineered virtual agent that people with limited internet access can speak to over the phone to book vaccine appointments, as well as ask questions about the availability of certain jabs and their eligibility to receive them.

The virtual agent is part of a body of work Google announced in February 2021 under the Intelligent Vaccine Impact Solutions (IVIs) banner that is geared towards using cloud-based technologies and AI tools to bolster the responsiveness of public sector organisations to Covid-19 pandemic.

In a blog post, Mike Daniels, vice-president of global public sector at Google Cloud, said the virtual agent will be accessible 24-hours a day and will provide the general public with real-time information about vaccine bookings and availability, and has support for 28 languages and dialects to make it as inclusive as possible.

“The virtual agent needs to be able to comprehend how people talk and the multiple ways in which they will express the same question or intent. For example, ‘When can I get the vaccine?’ and ‘When can I get it?’ are effectively the same question, and…the intelligent virtual agent understands the context of the question and correctly answers it,” said Daniels.

“Virtual agents also give public health agencies the ability to update answers in real-time. This is critical, as answers to vaccine eligibility questions can change daily and the system needs to be up to date. Having the ability to easily update these responses increases trust and conveys authoritative information at all times.”

Elsewhere, the tech giant’s charitable arm, Google.org, has joined the Gavi public-private global health partnership, the work of which is focused on raising funds to get Covid-19 vaccinations to people in low and middle-income countries.

Google.org has offered to fund 250,000 vaccinations through Gavi, and is providing technical assistance to the programme to accelerate the pace of vaccine distribution across the world.

Furthermore, the company has set up a campaign to encourage its own employees to donate funds to the initiative. Any monies raised will be matched by both Google and Gavi to triple the fundraising effect.

The company has also committed to providing Gavi with $15m in Google advertising grants to help expand the online reach of its fundraising efforts.

In a blog post announcing the partnership, Google’s chief health officer – Karen DeSalvo – said Google.org and Gavi have been working together since February 2021 on this project to ensure as many people as possible can get vaccinated.

“Vaccines may be harder to access for people based on factors like where they live, how far they have to drive to a vaccination site and if they have reliable internet to book an appointment. And, globally, it could be years before some countries even have enough vaccines,” she wrote.

“We’ve helped Gavi understand vaccine-related insights search trends so they can better educate communities about the Covid-19 vaccine. They’ve used that information to create educational content that reaches more than half a million people each day.”

The company has also committed to providing $2.5m to several agencies – including Partners in Health, Stop the Spread and Team Rubicon – that are working directly with 500 community-based organisations to improve vaccine take-up rates in Black, Latino and rural communities in the US through the creation of pop-up immunisation sites, for example.

In addition to this, DeSalvo said the company will provide a further $250m in Google Ad Grants to government, community organisations, public health departments to fund the delivering of more than 2.5 billion vaccine-related public service announcement as well.

“This brings our total commitment for Covid-related public service announcements to more than $800 million,” she said. “As we’ve learned throughout the pandemic, no one is safe from Covid-19 until everyone is safe. Getting vaccines to everyone around the world is a challenging, but necessary, undertaking. We’ll keep doing our part and working together until we get there.”

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