This year, global partners achieved another major step toward a polio-free world. In August 2020, after four years with no cases, the African region was certified free of wild poliovirus. Now only two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, still have circulation of wild poliovirus.

COVID-19 threatens decades of hard-won progress. WHO and UNICEF estimate that due to COVID-19 disruptions, up to 80 million children are at risk of missing out on vaccination against polio and other vaccine preventable diseases. Progress made on these diseases is fragile and underscores the importance of global institutions like the UN and its agencies to try to answer the call to protect hard-won gains during this pandemic.

Immediately after the announcement of the global pandemic in March, GPEI made the tough decision to put all polio campaigns on temporary hold through June and volunteered polio staff and infrastructure to support the COVID-19 response.

The pause on polio campaigns was necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 during the crucial first few months of the pandemic, but it sparked an unfortunate uptick in both wild and vaccine-derived polio cases. Four months later, in July, polio campaigns restarted under new safety guidelines, adopting physical distancing, personal protective equipment, and sanitation requirements. These measures will help protect health workers and communities from COVID-19 risk. However, these requirements will also increase operational costs by up to 150%, meaning increased investment from governments and donors will be needed not only to continue polio services but also to keep us on track to finish the global fight for eradication.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the challenges it posed to both polio and immunization programs presented an extraordinary opportunity to synchronize efforts and promote the integration of critical immunization and disease surveillance activities, which is one of the three main goals of GPEI’s current strategy for eradication.

Through the COVID-19 response, the polio program has demonstrated that its benefits extend far beyond the scope of polio eradication. This is a stark reminder that even after polio eradication is achieved and GPEI comes to an end, there are essential activities currently performed by the program that will need to be maintained.

Read the full article about working toward a COVID-19 vaccine by Elizabeth Thrush at United Nations Foundation.