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Covid-19 vaccine waste is about to go up in the US

Signs and age groups are shown for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
REUTERS/Mike Blake
New CDC guidance states: “As access to Covid-19 vaccine increases, it is important for providers to not miss any opportunity to vaccinate every eligible person who presents at vaccine clinics,” even if that increases “the likelihood of leaving unused doses in a vial.”
By Annabelle Timsit
Published Last updated

The US has run one of the most successful Covid-19 vaccination campaigns in the world. States have administered more than 290 million jabs and 62% of adults have received at least one dose. The country is swimming in vaccines—so much so, in fact, that experts are warning it may lead to more wastage as supply begins to significantly outstrip demand.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of May 24, 0.44% of the more than 353 million doses that have been delivered to states are wasted—that’s roughly 1.55 million doses. “That’s too good to be true,” says Tinglong Dai, a professor of operations management and business analytics at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, who thinks the wastage rate could be closer to 5%. But it would still be far lower than other countries, like France, where wastage is as high as 25% for some Covid-19 vaccines (link in French)—and many times lower than 50%, the World Health Organization (WHO)(pdf) estimate for wastage rates across all vaccine types.

As the US enters a new phase of its vaccination program that’s geared towards facilitating access and reaching vaccine-hesitant people, it’s likely to waste more doses. In updated guidance on Covid-19 vaccine wastage (pdf) from May 18, the CDC accepts that: “While we want to continue to…use every dose possible, we do not want that to be at the expense of missing an opportunity to vaccinate every eligible person when they are ready to get vaccinated.”

Why vaccine wastage could go up in the US

The daily pace of vaccination has slowed in the US, from a peak of 4.3 million doses administered on April 1 to 836,080 on May 25.

That’s in part because most people who really wanted a jab have gotten one and those that haven’t might be hesitant to do so, or unwilling to go out of their way to get one. To reach them, the US wants to send more doses to community health clinics or work sites. That is likely to lead to more wastage, says Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, because those settings don’t always have enough storage, and the people administering the vaccines don’t “have the same level of training.”

Another reason why wastage will likely increase overall is that “in Feb. and March, everybody who was administering the vaccines knew they had something that the whole country wanted,” says Jha, “and people were super careful. That is going to change.”

This creates a moral dilemma for the US: Other countries desperately need vaccines while at home, doses are going to waste. The Biden administration recently committed to sending up to 60 million doses of AstraZeneca jabs abroad, but that’s because that vaccine isn’t authorized in the US. Dai argues the US could do more with its stockpile. “It is about time to share with countries that are suffering.”

“That sense of urgency and that carefulness that pervaded our culture around vaccine distribution needs to be brought back,” adds Jha. “My god, there are people literally dying around the world because they can’t get access to vaccines. We’ve got to do something about it.”

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