Background The coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) has quickly spread to all corners of the world since its emergence in Wuhan, China in December of 2019. The disease burden has been heterogeneous across regions of the world, with Americas leading in cumulative cases and deaths, followed by Europe, Southeast Asia, Eastern Mediterranean, Africa and Western Pacific. Initial responses to COVID-19 also varied between governments, ranging from proactive containment to delayed intervention. Understanding these variabilities allow high burden countries to learn from low burden countries on ways to create more sustainable response plans in the future. Methods This study used a mixed-methods approach to perform cross-country comparisons of pandemic responses in the United States (US), Brazil, Germany, Australia, South Korea, Thailand, New Zealand, Italy and China. These countries were selected based on their income level, relative COVID-19 burden and geographic location. To rationalize the epidemiological variability, a list of 14 indicators was established to assess the countries’ preparedness, actual response, and socioeconomic and demographic profile in the context of COVID-19. Results As of 1 April 2021, the US had the highest cases per million out of the nine countries, followed by Brazil, Italy, Germany, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and China. Meanwhile, Italy ranked first out of the nine countries’ total deaths per million, followed by the US, Brazil, Germany, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, China and Thailand. The epidemiological differences between these countries could be explained by nine indicators, and they were 1) leadership, governance and coordination of response, 2) communication, 3) community engagement, 4) multisectoral actions, 5) public health capacity, 6) universal health coverage, 7) medical services and hospital capacity, 8) demography and 9) burden of non-communicable diseases. Conclusion The COVID-19 pandemic manifests varied outcomes due to differences in countries’ vulnerability, preparedness and response. Our study rationalizes why South Korea, New Zealand, Thailand, Australia and China performed better than the US, Italy and Brazil. By identifying the strengths of low burden countries and weaknesses of hotspot countries, we elucidate factors constituting an effective pandemic response that can be adopted by leaders in preparation for re-emerging public health threats.