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How long can the COVID vaccine sit on the shelf before it expires?

Man looking at vaccine in container - shelf life covid vaccine
Photo via Japanexperterna.se/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: July 9, 2021

Numerous vaccines for COVID-19 have begun distribution in the U.S. and around the world. The Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been shipped to pharmacies like CVS, hospitals, and federally qualified health centers, and citizens are being vaccinated. The shelf life of these COVID-19 vaccines varies depending on the vaccine developer and the temperature at which they are kept.

What is the shelf life of all three vaccines?

The Pfizer vaccine’s lifespan depends largely on the temperature at which it is stored. All Pfizer vaccines will be shipped in special thermal shippers, which will maintain a temperature of -70 degrees Celcius, and can be used as temporary storage units by refilling them with dry ice whenever necessary. The vaccine can be stored in these containers for up to 30 days.

Stored in the refrigerators commonly found in hospitals and pharmacies, the vaccine can last for five days, assuming temperatures remain between 2-8 degrees Celsius. This can give COVID vaccines stored in the temporary containers and then shifted to refrigerators a shelf life of 35 days. In mid-May 2021, the European Medicines Agency said Pfizer doses could be refrigerated for 30 days instead of the original five.

At “ultra-low temperatures,” doses of the Pfizer vaccine can last up to six months. Once thawed, however, vaccines cannot be refrozen and stored. To ensure that no vaccines are stored improperly and lose their viability, Pfizer intends to utilize “GPS-enabled thermal sensors,” which will track the temperature of each shipment and allow Pfizer to “proactively prevent unwanted deviations and act before they happen,” according to the Pfizer website.

In late February, the FDA said the Pfizer vaccine, which was approved for kids aged 12-15 in mid-May, could be stored at standard freezer temperatures for up to two weeks. A few months later, Pfizer CEO Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said the company was working on a new version of the vaccine that could be stored for six months in normal refrigerator temperatures.

The Moderna vaccine similarly depends on freezing temperatures to maintain viability. The vaccine must be kept at the same temperature as the Pfizer vaccine: between 2-8 degrees Celsius (or 36-46 degrees Fahrenheit). It will remain stable at these temperatures for three months (originally, the company said it could only last 30 days at those temperatures). At room temperature, the vaccine will remain viable for up to 12 hours. 

At freezing temperatures, the Moderna vaccine can be stored for up to six months

If the vaccines are thawed and then can’t be used in their current location, though, states are trying to relocate those doses so they can be given to people before they expire. Either that or people who wouldn’t be a priority patient have scored the vaccine for being in the right place at the right time.

During the Texas winter storms in mid-February, a power outage shut down a facility storing more than 8,000 Moderna vaccine doses. Officials managed to get more than 5,000 people vaccinated during the next 12 hours, and for the remainder of the doses, Moderna gave specific guidance so they could be re-refrigerated and kept safe.

Meanwhile, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was approved for the U.S. in February and which requires only a single dose (but which has failed to live up to expectations), doesn’t require ultra-freezing temperatures to store. According to Johnson & Johnson, the vaccine “is compatible with standard vaccine storage and distribution channels with ease of delivery to remote areas. The vaccine is estimated to remain stable for two years at -4°F (-20°C), and a maximum of three months at routine refrigeration at temperatures of 36-46°F (2 to 8°C).

But if vaccines are thawed and then expire before they find somebody’s arm—and that was a big worry in Ohio in June when 200,000 Johnson & Johnson doses were set to expire—here’s what happens to the unused doses.

By mid-June 2021, with a number of states worried that their Johnson & Johnson doses would expire before they could be used, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the FDA was trying to determine if the expiration dates could be adjusted or extended.

Read more on the coronavirus vaccine:

Sources: CDC, Moderna, Pfizer, the New York Times, Immunize.org


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