How many Covid vaccines go to waste?

Vaccine wastage appears low in the US so far but that could soon change.
Vaccine wastage appears low in the US so far but that could soon change.
Image: REUTERS/Sergio Perez
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Close to 1.8 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been administered in the single largest vaccination campaign in the history of the world.

As with any effort of this scale, it was bound to have some glitches. One of them has been the wastage of vaccine doses in transport, storage, or in clinic.

While there is no centralized database of vaccine wastage rates globally, some countries collect the data piecemeal, and major wastage events are sometimes reported in local news outlets. The available data paint a picture of a problem that may be under-reported, that varies wildly across jurisdictions, and that is almost certain to get worse.

What is vaccine wastage?

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)(pdf), vaccine wastage takes place under different circumstances, including:

  1. When vaccine vials spend too long outside of a given temperature range.
  1. When the person administering the vaccines doesn’t use the full volume of doses contained inside each vial, because they don’t have the right types of needles to extract them all, for example.
  2. When vaccines vials are opened but the doses in them aren’t used within a certain number of hours.
  3. When vaccines are not used by their expiry dates.

How many Covid vaccines go to waste?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO)(pdf), 50% of vaccines are wasted around the world. That number is highly variable across countries, healthcare settings, and types of vaccines. But since there is typically no shortage of vaccines, it’s often considered the cost of doing business.

Covid-19 vaccines are different. There isn’t enough supply to meet the demand, and countries are racing against time and variants.

In April, the French minister of health Olivier Veran (link in French) said that 25% of AstraZeneca, 20% of Moderna, and 7% of Pfizer vaccines currently go to waste in France. At that point, France had received about 5 million doses of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine (French), which would mean that roughly 1.25 million doses were wasted.

Major wastage events often make the news, such as when Malawi burned about 20,000 doses of expired AstraZeneca vaccines even though the WHO said they could still be used. A Hong Kong official recently warned the government might have to throw away millions of unused Pfizer jabs because not enough people are taking them. And 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine were destroyed after a tragic mix-up in a production plant.

In the US, the wastage rate is low. According to the CDC, as of May 24, Covid-19 vaccine wastage nationally is approximately 0.44% of the more than 353 million doses that have been delivered to states—meaning roughly 1.55 million doses. That’s likely to be an underestimate, says Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. Jha tells Quartz that he expects the true wastage rate to be closer to 1%, while Tinglong Dai, a professor of operations management and business analytics at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, believes it could be as high as 5%.

What’s clear is that wastage is likely to go up over time, they say, as supply begins to outstrip demand in rich countries, while poor ones still struggle for access. Healthcare providers will be less careful with vials and people will stop showing up for extra doses at the end of the day. In the US, says Jha, “I absolutely expect wastage numbers to go up.”