'It's inevitable': Thousands of COVID vaccines will expire or go to waste as demand decrease

Thousands of Pfizer vaccines on the verge of expiring just got a three-month extension from the FDA.
SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Normally, if vaccines are in special freezers they have a shelf life of six months, but once the vials are opened they can only last a couple hours.

Nationwide, we are faced with two issues; some vaccines are sitting in freezers and expiring, and others are going to waste because the entirety of the vials are not being used.

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Thousands of Pfizer vaccines on the verge of expiring just got a three-month extension from the FDA.

Luz Pena: "Your pharmacists are reporting doses being thrown out, or even some of them expiring?"

Susan Bonilla: "Certainly, some of the earlier shipments have an expiration date and they are expiring," said Bonilla, CEO of the California Pharmacists Association.

The majority of Pfizer vaccines were set to expire on August 31. Last evening the FDA extended that shelf life by three extra months after reviewing the latest Pfizer data.

"They are recognizing that the vaccine efficacy maintains for longer so the shelf life is actually longer," said Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County Public Health officer.

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Data obtained by ABC10 in San Diego through a public records request, points to 126,278 COVID-19 vaccine doses going to waste in California from December to June.

"There are batches, we are talking about thousands of vaccines that would've expired a month and two months from now," said Dr. Willis.

Luz Pena: "Is it inevitable that at this point vaccines will be thrown out?"

Dr. Willis: "Yes, It's inevitable that there will be some vaccines that have been distributed down into health care centers and into counties that because of the limited demand in vaccine right now, will expire."

Dr. Willis attributes this waste to two factors; a decrease in demand and "The most common wastage right now is vials that have been opened for one patient and the remaining five or six doses in that vial end up to being used and discarded."

Susan Bonilla, CEO of California's Pharmacists Association says they struggle with throwing away vaccines every day, but have no choice.

"It is a moral dilemma when you have somebody presenting themselves to get a vaccination. You know that if you open the vial you may not be able to use it all. Right now the direction from California Department of Public Health to our pharmacists is get that shot in the arms even it means that you are not going to be able to use the whole vial," said Bonilla.

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Once a vial is opened vaccines lose their efficacy after a couple hours. At Stanford Health Care they noticed a small uptick in vaccine waste in the last month.

"Across the system we probably average about 5-10 doses being wasted "said Deepak Sisodiya, Director of Pharmacy for Stanford Health Care.

We contacted every Bay Area county to get the latest numbers on vaccine expirations and wastage.

From July 20th to August 20th, Contra Costa County reported about 12% of doses from un-punctured vials at county-run vaccine clinics went unused. That's a total of 1,512 vaccine doses.

"The unused doses are primarily from vials which are opened, but there are not enough patients available to use the entire vial before the vaccine expires. Once a vial is punctured, the vaccine doses are only good for 2-24 more hours depending on the brand. Because we believe it's so important that everyone get vaccinated, we will open a new vial even if it's likely some doses will go unused," Contra Costa County Health Public Information officer.

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Since February 2021, San Mateo County Health has discarded 215 vaccine doses due to expiration.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health said over email:

"SFDPH does not have any Pfizer or Moderna vials due to expire in the next month. We currently have 1,305 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that will expire on September 21 and are on track to use most of this supply before the expiration date. SFDPH has never had to waste its own supply due to expiration. We are regularly taking in short-dated vials from other counties through the vaccine marketplace to utilize as much of the state's supply as possible. We also work with other health systems and providers in the City to right-size their vaccine inventories if they have doses at risk of wastage."

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To avoid more waste, Dr. Willis says Marin County stopped requesting vaccines from the federal government and counties across the state are sharing doses through a vaccine marketplace.

"The doses that we don't order if they stay at the federal level they are able to be redistributed across the nation," said Dr. Willis.

A painful reality given that in many parts of the world people don't have access to the vaccines. Some health care experts hope more vaccines will be used in the upcoming months as boosters will be needed.

"Certainly it's going to help. It's a win-win in terms of using vaccines that would've have otherwise be wasted and offering people the protection of a booster dose," said Dr. Willis.


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