What happens to all the unused COVID vaccines?

what happens to unused covid vaccines
Photo via Defense Logistics Agency/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

An unfortunate consequence of rushing to execute a COVID-19 vaccine rollout is that there have inevitably been some leftover doses. What, then, happens to all the COVID vaccines that go unused? 

After all, health departments, pharmacies, and medical facilities can acquire only a limited number of vaccines to distribute at a time. And because the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, in particular, have relatively short shelf lives once thawed, it’s become a delicate balance between prioritizing the elderly and immunocompromised and ensuring that each shot finds an arm.

The bad news is that leftover doses must ultimately be discarded. But the good news is that it’s likely that only a small fraction of distributed vaccine doses have gone to waste.

It’s difficult to say exactly how many doses have been thrown out, as there is currently no nationwide data tracking in place to account for wasted doses. In many cases, these doses become unaccounted for due to people simply not showing up for vaccine appointments. In other instances, doses go to waste because of inadequate refrigeration, expiration, or human error in mixing, preparation, or transportation.

But even a small fraction of doses can add up by the thousands. As such, many states and communities are coming up with creative ways to make sure shots get into arms, particularly as COVID-19 variants continue to spread in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has since issued guidelines on vaccine distribution and administration with some solutions to keep doses from going to waste. Among other suggestions, the CDC recommends rolling over unused vaccines into the next week’s allocation for vaccines that won’t immediately spoil in refrigerated temperatures.

Likewise, the CDC has partnered with Boston Children’s Hospital to create Vaccinefinder.org, a website that helps connect people with local vaccine providers. The website, which is updated daily, provides real-time visibility into vaccine inventory to make sure appointments at clinics, pharmacies, and other locations are filled, reducing overall waste.

Vaccinefinder.org is just one of several websites geared toward pairing people with unused vaccines. VaccineHunter.org, which 25-year-old entrepreneur Doug Ward created after struggling to find an appointment for his mother, connects users with local Facebook groups where people can share information about the availability of excess vaccines.

“I saw a problem and a point where I think I could make a little Band-Aid solution to make everyone better off and help people,” Ward told ABC News. “So that’s exactly what I did.”

In addition to websites and social media, some communities have even taken to putting up flyers around towns and at grocery stores in hopes of pairing people with vaccines that would have gone unused.

Some regional and national pharmacy and grocery chains—including CVS Pharmacy, Walgreens, and Walmart—also have set protocols for vaccine waste avoidance.

“In the event of unused doses in our pharmacies, our pharmacy teams will evaluate how to most efficiently vaccinate eligible individuals with remaining doses,” CVS said in a statement. “This includes outreaching to eligible patients in their communities, as our pharmacies maintain patient profiles with information that can help identify who is eligible to be vaccinated.”

“Walgreens is committed to ensuring every dose of COVID-19 vaccine is used. At this time, demand for vaccines outweighs supply, so excess doses are rare,” echoed Walgreens. “If there are available doses at the end of the day, our pharmacists are embedded in their communities and proactively reach out to eligible customers to offer the vaccine.”

Sources: ABC News, WTSP 10 News, CDC

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