Opinion: US development organizations must collaborate on COVID-19 vaccine distribution strategy

Health care workers arrange vaccine boxes during a nationwide trial run of COVID-19 vaccine delivery systems in Mumbai, India. Photo by: Niharika Kulkarni / REUTERS

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing the world out of business as usual. This includes U.S. development organizations, which will play a key role in getting coronavirus vaccines to many of the 5 billion people in low- and middle-income countries.

Private development firms and organizations are competitive by nature. They would not exist without funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, and others. But now is the time for development organizations to put aside their corporate interests and begin working together, in advance of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, to frame a coordinated response to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.

We need to assess how we can maximize our collective capabilities to contribute to the global vaccination effort being led by the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility, or COVAX. It will be a challenge to bring the vaccines from tarmac to arm, especially in low-resource countries. The vaccines will have their own transport, storage, and cold chain requirements, plus individual inoculation protocols. Some will require a follow-up dose weeks after the initial one and will necessitate precise patient data management.

We need the collective breadth of skills and capacities of U.S. development partners to get COVID-19 under control.

Each country also has unique social, economic, and political contexts that must be recognized and respected — and ideally leveraged — plus varying levels of resources and experience for carrying out vaccination campaigns. And there’s a clear risk that COVID-19 campaigns will come at the expense of other health services.

Even the U.S., which has very robust health infrastructure, has stumbled out of the gate on COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

But I believe that, generally speaking, U.S. development firms and organizations have the necessary expertise, in-country relationships, and personnel to be leveraged for the global COVID-19 response. As a whole, we have a track record of being effective partners in responding to pandemics and epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS and swine flu.

Using the lessons from swine flu

In 2009, the emergence of swine flu, or the H1N1 virus, forced governments and global health organizations to deal with a key question: “How can we ensure rapid, safe, and equitable emergency vaccine distribution between high-, medium-, and low-resource countries?”

The World Health Organization, in coordination with then-President Barack Obama’s administration in the U.S., as well as other national governments and vaccination advocates, worked on agreements to prioritize H1N1 vaccine access for the most vulnerable people in the world, no matter their home country or resources. WHO also created a global H1N1 vaccine stockpile and negotiated liability waivers between countries — an issue to be revisited for COVID-19 vaccines.

USAID — where I led pandemic response efforts for swine flu — had a large role in the U.S. government’s international response. We reached out to U.S. development partners to harness their capabilities in vaccine distribution, policy formulation, training, and communication to ensure the resiliency of local systems during a swine flu response across countries around the world.

These partners were invaluable during the swine flu pandemic. USAID relied on their expertise to respond quickly and coherently to the virus without having to develop our own expertise, which would have been costly and time-consuming. Thankfully, we did not see the illness and death then that is widespread today.

Time to play a role

COVID-19 presents a more complicated challenge than swine flu did. And while many WHO staff members who worked on swine flu and other pandemics are still with the organization, the U.S. government is dealing with an obvious leadership vacuum, temporary as it may be.

Opinion: The unspoken COVID-19 vaccine challenges — distribution and corruption

One critical aspect has been left out of the COVID-19 equation: ensuring the right people get the right vaccine at the right time.

The COVID-19 vaccines likely won’t be available in significant quantities for six months or more, so the first half of 2021 will be critical for countries to start preparing their responses. Development firms and organizations can help governments with locally driven, national COVID-19 plans that, for example, anticipate public fears about vaccinations.

University Research Co. LLC — where I am a global health security adviser — has a COVID-19 task force that produced guiding principles for country-led coronavirus vaccination strategies. We understand that we have neither the full range of skills nor capacities needed to address a pandemic. The same is true for other development partners.

We need the collective breadth of skills and capacities of U.S. development partners to get COVID-19 under control. Our success will depend in part on breaking down the institutional barriers between development partners to forge a clear and impactful vision for how we can best participate in this global effort. A starting point could include setting up a virtual meeting for organizations to begin drafting a strategy to support global COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

Development organizations have a critical role to play in the global COVID-19 response. Let’s play it.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Dennis Carroll

    Dennis Carroll is University Research Co. LLC's senior adviser for global health security and chair of the Global Virome Project leadership board. For nearly 15 years, Carroll directed the pandemic influenza and other emerging threats unit at the U.S. Agency for International Development.