The textbook view of vaccination is that it functions to induce immune memory of the specific pathogen components of the vaccine, leading to a quantitatively and qualitatively better response if the host is exposed to infection with the same pathogen. However, evidence accumulated over the past few decades increasingly suggests that vaccines can also have non-specific effects on unrelated infections and diseases, with important implications for childhood mortality particularly in low-income settings. Furthermore, many of these non-specific effects, as well as the pathogen-specific effects, of vaccines show differences between the sexes. Here, members of the Optimmunize consortium discuss the evidence for and potential mechanisms of non-specific and sex-differential effects of vaccines, as well as their potential policy implications. Given that the non-specific effects of some vaccines are now being tested for their ability to protect against COVID-19, the authors also comment on the broader implications of these trials.