Europe is letting thousands of COVID-19 vaccine doses expire while only 1% of people in low-income countries and 28% of the world population has received at least a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
On Tuesday (27 July), the EU celebrated reaching the self-imposed target of 70% of adults vaccinated with at least one dose, putting the bloc among the world leaders when it comes to the vaccination campaign, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.
However, despite having nearly 60% of adults fully jabbed, thousands of COVID-19 vaccine doses are being thrown away after they expire, EURACTIV has learned.
In Lithuania, a country with a population of fewer than 3 million, more than 20,000 expired vaccines have been discarded since the start of the campaign, a spokesperson for the country’s health ministry told EURACTIV.
The spokesperson added that the main reason for this wastage was people not showing up for their vaccine appointments.
This is problematic as many vaccines are time-sensitive. For example, after dilution, the Comirnaty (Pfizer-BioNTech) vaccine must be stored between 2°C to 30°C and used within 6 hours, after which time it must be discarded.
The exact number of vaccine doses wasted in the EU is not available as neither European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) nor the Commission is keeping track.
A Commission’s spokesperson told EURACTIV that vaccine management falls under the competence of each member state therefore the executive does not have any specific monitoring mechanism in place regarding the expiration of vaccines.
It is clear though that, on closer inspection, similar situations are occurring across other member states.
Expiring vaccines across the bloc
Poland’s health ministry says almost 73,000 doses have been disposed of in Poland so far, with this number expected to climb in the coming weeks.
Michał Kuczmierowski, president of the Government Agency for Strategic Reserves, said that interest in vaccination among Polish citizens falls by 40% each week, boosting the risk of wasted doses as time goes on.
Meanwhile, in Germany, thousands of vaccine doses are set to be destroyed, according to the German local news portal Merkur. The southern German municipality of Pfaffenhofen is returning 7,000 Vaxzevria (Oxford/Astrazeneca) doses to the producer as they approach their expiry date and people increasingly refuse vaccination.
In the Czech Republic, health ministry data shows more than 3,000 doses had been lost due to expiration, poor storage conditions or breakage.
While the exact numbers of vaccines lost were not specified, the French government said on Tuesday that it was pleasantly surprised by the low number of doses lost, adding that professionals seem careful to avoid wastage.
However, the French health ministry estimates that 50,000 Vaxzevria (AstraZeneca) doses have expired. While Comirnaty, Spikevax and Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccines experienced “very little wastage” due to storage, 5% doses were lost in the vaccine centres and 10% at doctors’ offices, the ministry said.
Extension of the validity period
However, instead of destroying expired vaccines, some countries, such as Romania, have instead chosen to wait in the hope that either the vaccine producer or the European Medicines Agency (EMA) will announce a possible extension of the validity period.
Almost 42,000 doses of the Vaxzevria vaccine were being kept in the country after their expiry date as of 31 June.
This is not something that the European office of the World Health Organisation (WHO) is in favour of. Contacted by EURACTIV, the spokesperson of the UN specialised agency said that, since no vaccine can be used beyond the expiry date set by the manufacturer, all actions must be taken by the ministries of health to scale up the use of the vaccines.
“For every story about a country that was not able to utilise all vaccine doses before they expired, there are dozens of more countries that are putting the vaccines to very, very good use, dose by dose,” the spokesperson said.
Donation instead of disposal
The agency urged countries to dispose of expired vaccine doses in line with the national guidelines on immunisation waste management only if donation to other countries is not possible.
According to the WHO spokesperson, it would be prudent that the doses are shared with other countries that are in need within a reasonable time period before the expiry date so that the recipient country can use them.
Likewise, the Commission spokesperson said that the vaccines produced and delivered to member states on the basis of advance purchase agreements with vaccine developers may also be donated to other countries, pointing out that the EU has committed to delivering 200 million doses to these countries by the end of the year.
Several countries are exploring the possibility, especially when it comes to the Vaxzevria vaccine, as it has lost its popularity in several EU countries.
For instance, the German government announced plans to donate all future deliveries of pre-ordered Vaxzevria as well as Janssen doses to developing countries starting in August, broadcaster ZDF reported.
At least 80% of these jabs – which amounts to roughly 30 million doses – are to be distributed via COVAX, a worldwide initiative aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, while the rest are planned to be distributed in a bilateral framework, namely to states of the Western Balkans, the Eastern Partnership and Namibia.
The same strategy has been adopted in France, where all unwanted Vaxzevria doses will go to COVAX. So far, 5 million doses have already been donated and 7 million will follow in the coming weeks.
These have been sent mainly to African countries, as well as to Afghanistan, Syria and Uzbekistan.
Isabelle Marchais, the associate researcher at Jacques-Delors Institute in France, told EURACTIV France that Vaxzevria remains a good vaccine despite documented side effects and has been “at the heart of COVAX.”
“It would be a shame if, because of a lack of interest in Europe, doses were lost instead of helping to accelerate vaccination in the countries that need it most today,” she concluded.
*Magdalena Pistorius, Mateusz Kucharczyk, Aneta Zachova and Bogdan Neagu contributed to the reporting
[Edited by Josie Le Blond/Gerardo Fortuna]