How the U.S. program to fight AIDS is tackling COVID-19

African man receiving vaccine in left arm (USAID DISCOVER-Health)
A man receives a COVID-19 vaccination in Zambia's Copperbelt province. (USAID DISCOVER-Health)

In 2003 the United States launched the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to fight HIV/AIDS around the world. Nearly 20 years later, that program’s advances in global health are helping save lives from COVID-19.

Through PEPFAR, the United States has invested nearly $100 billion to fight HIV/AIDS worldwide, saving 21 million people and preventing millions of HIV infections. It is the largest commitment in history by any nation to address a single disease.

President Biden, on World AIDS Day, December 1, said PEPFAR’s improvements to countries’ health care systems has better enabled nations to tackle COVID-19.

“As we have faced [the] COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve also reaped additional benefits from our decades-long investment in strengthening health systems around the world through PEPFAR,” Biden said.

“By strengthening countries’ abilities to fight AIDS,” he said, “we’ve also improved our collective ability to fight other diseases.”

PEPFAR works in more than 50 countries. The program invests over $5 billion total per year, including $1 billion to strengthen local health systems (PDF, 490 KB). PEPFAR supports programs at more than 70,000 health care facilities and 3,000 laboratories and nearly 300,000 health workers.

In the context of the COVID-19 response, PEPFAR-supported supply chains have been used to deliver personal protective equipment (PPE), freezers for vaccines and other medical supplies, and computer systems for collecting and tracking information in numerous countries.

With an additional $250 million provided through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, PEPFAR has used existing partnerships, systems and processes to efficiently support numerous countries’ response to COVID-19 by:

  • Training and deploying thousands of health care workers to respond to COVID-19, as they continue their HIV efforts.
  • Identifying COVID-19 hot spots using systems built to detect HIV.
  • Delivering tens of millions of COVID-19 test kits, PPE and other essential equipment through HIV health care supply chains.
  • Helping countries administer millions of COVID-19 vaccinations and boost vaccine confidence through existing PEPFAR programs and partnerships.
Woman holding "I am vaccinated sign" and striking celebratory pose (USAID DISCOVER-Health)
A woman celebrates receiving her vaccination in Kitwe, Zambia. (USAID DISCOVER-Health)

In Zambia, for example, PEPFAR has supported the country in administering nearly 2 million COVID-19 vaccinations. The program began in August 2021 with six high-volume vaccination sites and expanded to include 500 facilities across the country.

PEPFAR’s existing partnerships with community organizations in Eswatini helped that country’s government ramp up vaccination rates, protecting thousands of people.

“PEPFAR has helped countries build a firm local foundation to prevent, detect, and respond to other health threats, and strengthened global health security.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said January 28, on PEPFAR’s 19th anniversary. “These local health systems have served as the backbone of the COVID-19 response across much of Africa.”