After almost a year of suffering and over 250,000 known deaths from this virus in the United States alone, the promise of a vaccine in the near future can feel like a light at the end of what has been a long, dark tunnel. Vaccines have historically lessened the burden of diseases like measles and polio, and there is hope that they will bring an end to the current pandemic (1).
New vaccines to prevent COVID-19 are promising, and feature a number of brand new technologies that might make them more effective and easier to manufacture. However, even if these vaccine candidates are as effective as we hope they are, it will be several months before enough of the population is vaccinated that we can safely return to some semblance of normal life. Until then, the safety of our communities and the stability of our healthcare systems rely on each one of us making healthy choices about hygiene, mask-wearing, and social distancing. Based on how low adherence to public health guidelines has been in the first nine months of the pandemic, that is going to take significant work.
A different type of vaccine, called a “digital vaccine”, might offer a solution to the problem of creating sustained behavioral change. These are not typical vaccinations in the sense of promoting biological immunity to a pathogen, but they have this name because they create resistance to disease through a different mechanism. Digital vaccines are a subtype of digital therapeutics, which use neurocognitive training to promote positive human behavior using technologies like smartphone apps.
A lot of the research into this topic is based out of Carnegie Mellon University, which evaluates digital vaccine candidates through its Digital Vaccine Project. There are several candidates currently being tested, with more under development. One of these that has received the most publicity is ‘Fooya!’, an interactive and immersive gaming platform for children that aims to promote lifestyle changes through video games about healthy eating. The platform applies neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality principles, and has been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease in the pediatric population (2).
Some experts believe that digital therapeutics like these might have the potential to change the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic. These customized digital vaccines could use neurocognitive training techniques to improve literacy about preventative measures like mask-wearing and social distancing. Importantly, these digital vaccines can be personalized to ensure that the content is culturally-appropriate and relevant to the target audience (3). This could have particularly important applications in countries around the world where biological vaccine distribution will likely not happen as promptly as it will in the United States. It still remains to be seen if these technologies will be successful in improving COVID-19 public health outcomes. But if they are, they could be key in the response to emerging infectious diseases in the future.
Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999 Impact of Vaccines Universally Recommended for Children -- United States, 1990-1998. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00056803.htm
- Digital Vaccine Project, Carnegie Mellon University. https://www.cmu.edu/heinz/digital-vaccine-project/science/index.html
- Battling COVID-19 with ‘digital vaccines’. https://www.medicaleconomics.com/view/battling-covid-19-with-digital-vaccines