Up to 800,000 doses of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine are likely to have expired across the UK at the end of August, analysis suggests, and could now be thrown away.
The doses were destined for use in the UK rollout, but after the Government recommended in May that younger people should get an alternative jab because of the blood clot risk linked to the AstraZeneca jab, take-up dramatically slowed.
GPs told The Telegraph they had been raising concerns over leftover doses for some time, including one who wrote to his MP in a bid to re-purpose the jabs after exhausting other options.
Several said they had been horrified to watch vaccines expire in their fridges while millions around the world were struggling.
“I did a lot of shouting to everyone I could think of,” said one doctor from the South West of England who wanted to remain anonymous. “I was really upset because no one could get hold of it [in other countries]. It was very stressful.”
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New figures published on Wednesday by the Welsh government – which has had the lowest levels of wastage in the UK and also publishes the most comprehensive data – showed there were 40,000 expired AstraZeneca doses that were “not suitable for use” in Wales as of Sept 5. They are now being disposed of.
Across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, 48.9 million doses of AstraZeneca have been given. If the wastage rate – 1.7 per cent – is the same as in Wales, that would mean more than 800,000 doses have expired across the entire country.
Paul Mainwood, an analyst who has been tracking the vaccine rollout, said: “40,000 in Wales suggests that – if all home nations are having similar issues (anecdotally, they are doing worse) – we can estimate circa 800,000 doses reached expiry in August and are being thrown in the bin.”
The Covid-19 vaccine programme has been remarkably efficient across the UK, with far lower wastage rates than for other medicines, but the issue with leftover AstraZeneca vaccines headed for expiry has been on the cards for several months. The jabs have a six-month shelf-life in the fridge.
NHS teams across the different countries have been attempting to collect leftovers for redistribution in the UK, and did manage to re-allocate some doses to other vaccination centres. However, they did not reach all the vaccination hubs in time amid delays in collections.
Any doses which were centrally collected but not redistributed are also set to be destroyed, because they have passed their expiry date.
The doctor in the South West said thousands of doses at his vaccination centre had been collected and reused: “Ours got collected because I made a lot of noise. But there was no way they were going to get rid of all this.”
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A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The UK Government ordered vaccine doses to cover and protect all eligible people, whilst supporting equitable access to vaccines worldwide.
“Robust measures have been put in place throughout the vaccination programme to ensure wastage is kept to an absolute minimum and we are looking at options to further reduce any waste of vaccines which may expire.”
However, tough supply chain regulations mean that once medicines – including the Covid-19 jabs – have been distributed to GPs or entered the NHS supply chain, they cannot then be re-distributed elsewhere. This includes sending them to other countries, for example via the World Health Organisation’s Covax scheme. Moreover, any opened batches – the jabs come in batches of 10 vials, or 60 doses of vaccine – also cannot be returned.
Dr Jane Lothian, the lead officer of Northumberland local medical committee, said: “It's one of those annoyances. Some practices had to dispose of vast quantities.”
She said some hubs had been expecting to get guidance on whether they could use the doses for a booster campaign in the UK before the expiry date passed, but that did not happen in time.
It is a similar picture globally, with potentially millions of doses headed for or past expiry dates with little action taken in the richer countries with excess doses.
“We are just feeling distressed because we know that the Third World needs these and here we are throwing them in the bin,” Dr Lothian added.
The Telegraph requested figures for expired vaccines in England from the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England which, unlike their Welsh equivalents, do not openly publish such data. Along with the relevant authorities in Northern Ireland, they did not provide figures by the time of publication. The Scottish government said its wastage rates were “well below” the initial aim of five per cent without giving further detail.
A Welsh government spokesperson said: “Changes to age group vaccine recommendations and improved availability of other vaccines regrettably means a small excess of Oxford Astra-Zeneca vaccine doses have passed their expiry date.”
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However, they stressed that vaccine teams in Wales had worked hard to extract every possible dose from the vaccine vials, to the extent that they had actually pushed their supply further than originally thought possible – getting three extra doses in people’s arms for every 100 supplied.
“We believe our levels of waste are the lowest in the UK and we call on other nations to make their data available in the same way,” they added.
Dr Richard Vautrey, the BMA GP committee chair, said that vaccine sites had been doing “their utmost” to reach all groups improve take-up, and redistribute leftovers, but “with national guidance changing around the use of AstraZeneca in younger groups it’s unsurprising that some places will have doses left over”.
He added: “The Government should be putting into action plans to use any excess vaccines elsewhere; it’s indefensible if such an extraordinary number of doses have been left to expire and be thrown away.”
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