Christmas Covid surge blamed for expiry of more than 300,000 vaccines

Increased infection and rush for boosters over season has reduced eligible population

More than 300,000 Covid-19 vaccines are estimated to have expired since Christmas, with Ireland exploring bilateral deals with other countries in need of vaccines.

Damien McCallion, head of the HSE’s vaccination programme, told The Irish Times that the service currently estimates more than 300,000 doses are now beyond use, with further returns to be collated for the rest of January across this week and next.

Cabinet was warned on January 21st that at least 100,000 doses had expired, with a further 500,000 at risk of expiry in the two weeks to follow unless uptake increased. However, despite a range of strategies to drive uptake, many hundreds of thousands of doses sent to vaccine centres, GPs and pharmacists are now expiring.

This is partially due to the pre-Christmas rush to boost people, resulting in higher delivery volumes, and more vaccines being taken out of the HSE’s cold chain, where they have a longer shelf life. The huge level of infection over Christmas, coupled with advice that people should not be given a shot within three months of infection, has reduced the eligible population.

Wastage

Mr McCallion said there would inevitably be wastage within the programme as the HSE seeks to keep fridges in vaccine centres, pharmacies and GP surgeries stocked so that people eligible for a booster can get one on demand during the next three months, with up to 500,000 people becoming eligible for shots across the period.

“Given they only have a 30-day stock life, it’s inevitable there will be further expiry of vaccines as we move through those three months. We are trying to minimise and balance between having easy access and maintaining stock that’s out there.”

Meanwhile, sources involved in the vaccine rollout said contingency options are being examined for hundreds of thousands of doses already in the cold chain, or due to be delivered in the weeks ahead. The cold chain doses are separate to those due to expire shortly, which have been distributed, but nonetheless have a shelf life of around nine months, even when frozen.

The State is still receiving between 90,000 and 100,000 doses of Pfizer and Moderna in a given week, sources said, without the demand to soak up the consignments.

Donations

Once the vaccines are in the country, they cannot be donated to the international Covax programme, which only accepts donations directly from the manufacturers facilities.

Ireland is examining the possibility of giving away the excess doses bilaterally under a scheme similar to one previously agreed with Uganda, but the two-party exchanges are complex and require detailed negotiations.

A further complicating factor is planning for future booster or Covid-19 vaccine campaigns, and calibrating the stocks and supplies of vaccines accordingly, as well as balancing them with donations to developing countries.

The HSE is progressing medium-term plans but awaits policy decisions from Government, informed by the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) on the parameters of future vaccine programmes.