Hand squeezing baby's cheeks as another hand holds dropper over baby's partially open mouth (© Thoko Chikondi/AP)
A baby receives an oral vaccine during the Malawi Polio Vaccination Campaign Launch in Lilongwe, Malawi, on March 20, 2022. (© Thoko Chikondi/AP)

U.S. investments in ending the COVID-19 pandemic are now making routine immunizations and other public health advances more accessible around the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to “backsliding” in childhood immunizations, Dr. Folake Olayinka, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s global immunization technical lead, said during an April 27 discussion on using advances from the COVID-19 response to increase childhood immunizations.

Between 2019 and 2021, 67 million children worldwide missed immunizations against vaccine-preventable diseases such as diphtheria and measles, according to UNICEF. In April 2023, the World Health Organization launched a plan to help children catch up on vaccinations missed during the pandemic as a result of overburdened health services, closed clinics and medical supply chain challenges.

The U.S. government, private sector and other partners are now channeling public health advances made during the COVID-19 response to help countries increase vaccine access and uptake. While a U.S. firm that quickly developed vaccines against COVID-19 is bringing its technology to Africa to address a host of illnesses, the U.S. government is working with partners to improve vaccine delivery and increase confidence.

Olayinka says bringing lessons from the COVID-19 response to routine vaccinations will usher in “a new era in immunization.”

Man in mask talking to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken with others looking on (State Dept./Ron Przysucha)
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visits the Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal on November 20, 2021. (State Dept./Ron Przysucha)

Manufacturing vaccines

In 2021, the African Union set a goal of empowering Africa’s vaccine industry to produce 60% of the continent’s vaccine doses by 2040. In an April 26 opinion piece, Africa CDC Director General Jean Kaseya said increasing Africa’s vaccine production is vital for the continent’s public health and economic development.

“The Africa CDC’s New Public Health Order in part seeks to advance local production of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics for future pandemic preparedness and response in the continent,” Kaseya said. “There is an urgent need to invest in African health care systems as a critical instrument to secure its economic development.”

In March 2023, U.S. biotech firm Moderna and the Government of Kenya announced plans for a new mRNA vaccine production facility in Kenya that will produce 500 million vaccine doses annually. Moderna will prioritize development of vaccines and therapeutics for persistent global health threats, including HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) in January 2023 announced an investment of up to $50 million over 10 years in support of plans by Senegal’s Institut Pasteur de Dakar to produce up to 300 million vaccine doses annually, including for routine immunizations. CEPI’s donors include USAID and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Also in 2022, the U.S. National Institutes of Health reached an agreement with Cape Town-based biotech firm Afrigen to advance vaccine research and help produce mRNA vaccines on the African continent. Afrigen is a member of the World Health Organization’s hub for the transfer mRNA technology.

Bolstering supply chains

The U.S. government launched the Global VAX initiative during the COVID-19 pandemic to handle the need for cold storage and other challenges in delivering vaccines to remote communities. Global VAX has worked to improve vaccine access in countries including Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Eswatini, Ghana, Lesotho, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

People removing large cold storage box from vehicle (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Dwane R. Young)
U.S. service members unload a freezer containing COVID-19 vaccines at Camp Simba, Kenya. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Dwane R. Young).

In December 2022, USAID’s Procurement and Supply Management project — part of the agency’s Global Health Supply Chain Program — and international partners delivered ultracold freezers and refrigerated shipping boxes and storage equipment to protect COVID-19 vaccines in Angola. This equipment is now helping strengthen the cold chain systems that support immunizations against various childhood diseases.

USAID is working with Angola’s Ministry of Health to build on past medical supply chain investments to better respond to malaria and HIV/AIDS. USAID’s supply chain program operates in more than two dozen other countries including Bangladesh, Cameroon, Jordan, the Philippines and Uganda.

Increasing confidence

Vaccines, safely delivered, only work if people take them. That’s why the United States works with countries and partners to expand communication efforts that increased confidence in COVID-19 vaccines to address hesitancy around immunizations for other diseases.

People waiting in line by sign for COVID-19 vaccination center (© NurPhoto/Getty Images)
Citizens line up to receive COVID-19 vaccine doses in Bhubaneswar in India’s Odisha state on April 12, 2021. (© NurPhoto/Getty Images)

As part of Global VAX, the U.S. government, together with the Government of India and local partners, convened meetings to answer questions and respond to concerns about COVID-19 vaccines. The effort contributed to the successful vaccination of millions of Indians against the disease. Mosli Diggal, an older woman in a remote region of India’s Odisha state, credits such community outreach with informing her decision to get vaccinated.

“Once all my queries were answered and I was convinced of the importance of [the] vaccine, I took my first dose,” Diggal said.