Does the world’s first vaccine robot even make sense? We ask a nurse

By now, you could have seen the YouTube video. A robot known as the Cobi pokes its head out of a field like a cyborg ostrich. Over the course of roughly 30 seconds, it eases its head ahead, poking its nostril into an arm. This nostril is definitely a needle-free injector delivering a vaccine to muscle tissue, robotically.

Developed by the Canadian startup Cobionix, the firm claims this robot is the world’s first autonomous injector—a vaxbot, if you’ll.

For now, it’s simply a working prototype that might take two years or longer to come back to market, and vaccinations are simply one in all many duties it may doubtlessly carry out, in response to cofounder Tim Lasswell, who lent his arm for the video.

The query is just not whether or not this know-how is outstanding. The query is, Is Cobi really designed to interchange a healthcare skilled—even for a activity as seemingly easy as jabbing a vaccine?


“My preliminary ideas have been, I don’t even belief my Roomba!” Melody Butler, government director for the nonprofit Nurses Who Vaccinate, says with a snigger. A registered nurse herself, she rapidly clarifies that the criticism is just not a critique of robotics, however of the automation of robots inside a medical facility.

“We do use a lot of robotics in healthcare. We have the Da Vinci robot surgeons that use wonderful know-how,” says Butler. “Nevertheless, there’s a particular person behind that robot always. It’s not automated. You will have the scientific abilities and expertise a particular person is ready to present.”

In the meantime, Cobionix is concerned with automating affected person care, however by means of long-term software program iteration of their {hardware} platform. “Just like Tesla, it has all the self-driving autonomous {hardware} on board, however the automobiles aren’t self-driving but,” says Lasswell. He says the Cobi—which makes use of AI and 3D imaginative and prescient to see sufferers—may in the future carry out ultrasounds, blood attracts, and biopsies, swapping out its instruments for every job very like a physician or a nurse. “Our preliminary robotic platform might be overkill when it comes to what we’d want from {hardware} and software program to provide vaccines.”

[Photo: courtesy Cobionix]

In concept. Although as Butler explains, automation in drugs is trickier than mere mechanics. An individual offers affected person consolation—mushy abilities that embody answering questions and considerations—in addition to fixed scientific evaluation that therapy goes all proper.

“Not each particular person is the identical. Perhaps the know-how shall be there, and is best than the human eye at assessing somebody’s deltoid muscle.” However for now, she doubts that’s the case.

“You need to keep in mind, with vaccines, the commonest adversarial response is from improper method,” says Butler. That response is named Shoulder Injury Related to Vaccine Administration (SIRVA), and whereas uncommon, it could possibly happen if a shot is given too excessive in the arm, damaging tissue in a approach that causes ache and mobility loss long run. Particularly due to points like SIRVA, even medical professionals should take an hour-long refresher course in the event that they’ve stopped giving vaccines for greater than a yr earlier than choosing the observe again up, then exhibit their abilities to a supervisor.

That stated, Butler is definitely involved much less about the robot’s skill to manage a vaccine than a affected person’s personal familiarity with the machine to obtain that vaccine safely. She factors out that sufferers would should be educated to obtain a vaccination from this robot—which is definitely a CDC-recommendation for all vaccines. Maybe that could possibly be by means of a chat with a physician or a video explainer, she muses, however Butler was skeptical that the present consumer interface could be sufficient to make sure that each affected person may easily obtain a vaccine from a robot on the first attempt. (Take into accout the significance of dependable, automated care at scale—3 billion individuals on earth have been vaccinated in opposition to COVID-19 alone. If one out of a hundred individuals encounter a drawback, that’s 30 million individuals.)


[Image: courtesy Cobionix]

“Proper now it’s actually depending on the consumer to permit the robot to manage the vaccine to them,” says Butler. “This could be superb for somebody who’s skilled, and will get common photographs. However I’d be hesitant to make use of this now for a mass vaccination marketing campaign as a result of every particular person would require schooling [first].”

The challenges of administering vaccines solely grows when vaccinating a baby. Two-thirds of kids are afraid of needles, and at CVS, the pharmacists and technicians who administer vaccines are skilled to function an emotional help as a lot as a vaccinator.

“Our groups are engaged with kids throughout the vaccination course of, speaking with the baby, making jokes, and attempting to maintain them distracted and calm,” says a CVS spokesperson. “Our groups are targeted on permitting the baby to make decisions, reminiscent of what Band-Assist they want and which arm they need to use for the vaccination.”

To be honest, Cobionix is taking many of those points into consideration when growing its platform. They particularly fitted the Cobi with a needle-free know-how as a result of they knew a robot holding a needle could be terrifying. (Have you ever ever seen a robot do a nasal swab? Shivers.) And whereas they declined to make any try to cover the robot itself—maybe overlaying it with some form of facade to make it appear like a vaccine kiosk relatively than a vaccine robot—they did method the industrial design with consolation in thoughts.

“For this product, we determined to go along with the form of a robotic arm that’s clean, and [even] cute, [using] rounded joints, and a shiny white look,” says cofounder Nima Zamani. “We tried to make it as least-threatening as attainable. However over time individuals will get extra accepting of robotic arms.”

Nevertheless, in the close to time period, Butler suggests a robot like Cobi doesn’t even want to provide vaccines to be extremely useful in a healthcare context. Vaccines like Pfizer have to be thawed, mixed, and diluted before administration—a cautious preparation practiced by healthcare suppliers that you just would possibly by no means understand goes into every shot. This behind-the-scenes work is ripe for automation to provide time again to employees.

“That’s a know-how that could possibly be used proper now!” says Butler.