The Expired Covid-19 vaccine from pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca is destroyed in a landfill in Abuja, Nigeria in December 2021. Photo: Reuters

Rich countries and poor countries all destroy expired vaccines

Recently, the vaccine manufacturer Moderna (USA) has discarded about 30 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine because no country is ready to receive them. Meanwhile, pharmacies and hospitals in the US are also discarding excess doses of Moderna and Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccines, which have a short shelf life.

German health officials destroyed about 3.9 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine stored in a central federal warehouse after they expired at the end of June. Health Canada removed 1.2 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine have expired and it is expected to discard about 13.6 million more doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine (UK) for the same reason.

In late May, Switzerland said it would discard more than 600,000 doses of the expired Mordena vaccine. Denmark has also destroyed 1.1 million excess doses of the vaccine after efforts to donate it to other countries failed. As early as the end of last year, Nigeria destroyed more than 1 million doses of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine that had passed its expiry date.

The fact that so many Covid-19 doses were discarded marks the Covid-19 pandemic as entering a new phase when vaccine supply outstrips demand.

To launch the world’s first batches of Covid-19 vaccines, governments had to scramble for a vaccine that was in limited supply in the early days. But now Covid-19 vaccine makers can ramp up production to meet huge demand but the vaccine’s urgency has diminished in many places, with most of the global population being vaccinated 2 full shots and a part of people still do not want to inject.

“We are currently throwing doses of the vaccine in the trash. It’s sad to say that,” Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said during a discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month.

In some low-income countries, access to a Covid-19 vaccine is still difficult, with a lack of medical equipment such as deep freezers to store vaccine vials at low temperatures. Meanwhile, some other countries have difficulty planning and implementing vaccination campaigns because of the unstable supply of Covid-19 vaccine.

Demand for a Covid-19 vaccine could increase in rich countries like the US next fall, as manufacturers roll out modified versions of the vaccine that can more effectively prevent strains of Omicron. Recently, the US government has agreed to buy 105 million doses of the modified Covid-19 vaccine from Pfizer and partner BioNTech in preparation for the booster injection campaign in the fall.

Waste of multiple doses of vaccine packed in one vial

In the US, about 90.6 million doses of Covid-19 have been wasted, or 11.9% of the more than 762 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine distributed since the end of 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The rate of waste has increased rapidly recently – about 12 million doses of vaccine have been thrown away since the end of May.

Health experts say part of the waste is because the Covid-19 vaccine is packaged in vials containing between 5-20 doses. Once opened, vials of vaccine should normally be used within about 12 hours, if not discarded.

“Waste levels increase as the number of doses administered per day decreases,” said Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers (AIM), based in Maryland. At that point, many doses of vaccine remaining in the vial at the end of the day must be discarded.”

That risk of waste has made some doctors hesitant to order vials of the vaccine, Ms. Hannan said, especially in small health facilities in rural areas. She said single-dose vials or syringes would reduce waste, but vaccine manufacturers have yet to release the product.

Pharmaceutical company Pfizer will discard doses of Covid-19 vaccines if they are close to the expiry date. A Pfizer spokesperson said that a single-dose vial of the vaccine is being developed.

Moderna recently contacted countries to see if they wanted 30 million doses of its vaccines, but no one wanted to use them.

“The problem now is that people in many countries don’t want to get the Covid-19 vaccine anymore,” Bancel said.

Previously, Moderna signed vaccine supply contracts with the African Union (AU) and Covax – an international program to distribute Covid-19 vaccines to low-income countries. However, earlier this year, both organizations declined to order additional injections that Moderna was preparing to ship later this year, including more than 320 million doses intended to be allocated to Covax.

According to a recent report by consulting firm Deloitte, some countries have refused to receive the goods because they do not have adequate vaccination infrastructure in place or demand is low. Covax notes that demand for a Covid-19 vaccine has also fallen in many low-income countries because the Omicron variant is no longer a concern.

@ Saigon Tiep Thi