How – and why – leftover COVID vaccines are being given to younger, non-vulnerable people

Nurses prepare for COVID vaccinations at a centre in Wakefield on Tuesday. The majority of jabs so far have gone to people in the top priority groups, though there have been some reports of younger people receiving leftover doses. (Danny Lawson/PA)
Nurses prepare for COVID vaccinations at a centre in Wakefield. (PA)

Millions of coronavirus vaccines have so far been given to the top priority groups of over-70s, care homes residents and frontline health and social care workers.

At the same time, however, there have also been numerous reports of younger, less vulnerable people getting leftover doses.

Perhaps the most famous example of this so far is Brendan Clarke-Smith, a 40-year-old Conservative MP who got a vaccine after spending an afternoon volunteering at Retford Hospital’s vaccination centre.

On Friday, he posted about getting the jab on his Facebook account, including a picture of him posing for the camera as it was administered.

Clarke-Smith has since defended accepting the dose, saying he was told it would otherwise have gone to waste.

The government didn’t seem too impressed, though. Boris Johnson’s spokesman said on Monday: “We have asked for vaccine providers to have back-up lists of patients and staff in the top four cohort, so it’s ready to give them if there are any vaccines available at short notice.

Watch: Minister Nadhim Zahawi dismisses vaccine efficacy claims

“I would re-emphasise the point that we have prioritised these four groups for a reason, that they are the most vulnerable to the virus.”

So, what is going on – and is there a correct approach?

‘Pfizer vaccine has to be used’

Matters are complicated by the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in particular, which is difficult to store and has a limited shelf life.

Dr Richard Vautrey, a GP in Leeds and chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, explained on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday: “We have a list of people we can call on at short notice, we give them a ring towards the end of the session and often they’re with us within 15 minutes so we can utilise the [leftover] vaccine that we have.

“This is a particular problem for the Pfizer vaccine, which has to be used within three-and-a-half days of arriving in the practice. We can store the AstraZeneca vaccine for a little longer but we are still trying to use it every day as soon as we get it.”

‘Number one priority is not to waste vaccine’

Dr Vautrey was asked if it would be “wrong” to use leftover doses on people outside the priority groups. He suggested this isn’t necessarily the case.

“The number one top priority is not to waste the vaccine,” he said.

“This is a precious resource and we must use that resource as effectively as we can. Clearly we are trying at the moment to prioritise [the top priority groups].”

In any case, he argued the number of people receiving a vaccine outside the priority groups is likely to be low: “The only younger people who will be being vaccinated will be healthcare workers or those who are clinically extremely vulnerable.”

‘Eke every vaccine out’

Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, is also on record supporting GPs who give non-priority people a Pfizer jab if it is about to expire.

He said at a Downing Street press conference on 15 January: “If you look at the proportion of the vaccines that have been used, which are for people that are in care homes and people over 80, it is the overwhelming majority.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22: Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty attends a coronavirus press conference at 10 Downing Street on January 22, 2021 in London, England. The Prime Minister announced that the new variant of COVID-19, which was first discovered in the south of England, appears to be linked with an increase in the mortality rate. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Prof Chris Whitty (Getty Images)

“But at the same time, GPs, rightly, have tried to make sure that they eke every vaccine out that they can.

“And there have been some perfectly sensible decisions made… where it looks as if, particularly with the Pfizer vaccine where there is an issue about shelf-life once something’s been unfrozen, to make sure that actually it’s possible to maximise the people who are vaccinated.”

Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown