The number of COVID-19 vaccine doses wasted or expired in Alberta has increased substantially in the last five months.
“To date, approximately 10 per cent of the doses received into Alberta have been wasted or expired,” Alberta Health (AH) director of communications Chris Bourdeau told Global News.
“By comparison, the wastage in the 2019-20 influenza campaign was approximately eight per cent.”
While AH couldn’t provide an exact number of the COVID-19 vaccine doses that were wasted or that expired, the province said it had received 7,836,025 doses in total as of Nov. 12.
According to AH, the COVID-19 vaccine wastage rate up until the end of June was 0.4 per cent.
“Alberta continues to work hard to minimize wastage, but some increase in wastage is unavoidable now that we have transitioned to serving smaller numbers of clients,” Bourdeau said.
“Vials contain multiple doses and it is often impossible to use them all before the remaining doses expire.”
Just over 82 per cent of eligible Albertans are fully immunized and 88 per cent of those eligible have received at least one dose.
To date, 6,730,737 doses have been administered in Alberta.
“As vaccine coverage reaches new highs in Alberta, the number of Albertans getting immunized each day has decreased, and more remaining doses in a vial will be wasted,” said AH spokesperson Lisa Glover. “This is not a unique challenge to Alberta.”
“Pharmacies in Alberta are working hard to limit the amount of wastage by block-scheduling patients,” said pharmacist Randy Howden, who also owns two Medicine Shoppe locations. “But we want to make it as successful as possible, so if someone walks in wanting their first or second dose, I will open that vial for them to make sure they have the vaccine.”
In mid-October, the Alberta Pharmacists’ Association published a position statement on the Alberta Vaccine Booking System, which called for several changes, including adding “screening eligibility criteria for age, condition and vaccine spacing.”
Howden said there have been instances at his two Calgary pharmacies in which people who were not eligible booked their vaccination appointment. He said not only does that translate into a thawed vial being potentially wasted, but it also often causes frustration that is taken out on pharmacists.
Once opened, a Pfizer vial with six doses is good for six hours while a Moderna vial with 10 or 14 doses is good for 24 hours, according to Alberta Health.
The social media initiative VaxHunterAB has been a go-to source for many Albertans throughout the pandemic for vaccine availability and information.
“It’s just really frustrating for us because we know there are things that could have been done, that have (been) asked to be done, to help mitigate this wastage,” said Janaya Matheson, a co-founder of VaxHunterAB.
“We achieve nothing but wasting doses that are already here. We needed vaccine to be accessible for first and second doses, but also (to) not waste it unnecessarily.”
Right now, anyone 70 or older, health-care workers providing direct patient care who received their second dose less than eight weeks after their first dose and all First Nations, Inuit and Métis people aged 18 and older are eligible for a third-dose booster, as long as it’s been at least six months since their second dose.
Currently, Alberta’s third-dose eligibility aligns with the National Advisory Committee on Immunization’s recommendations, but there’s no timeline on when or how eligibility could be expanded.
Matheson is pushing for a rollout out plan for third-dose eligibility to avoid doses going to waste and to provide some flexibility on the six-month window between second and third doses.
She said VaxHunterAB has heard from an Alberta health-care worker who was turned away for showing up two days before they reached the six-month window and 80-year-olds one day shy of six months who were told they couldn’t get a third dose either.
“Issuing a plan for future boosters like B.C. and Ontario would be helpful so that we have a list of ‘next eligible’ that potential wastage… (could) go to,” Matheson said.
“Also, allowing some leeway for a little before six months if the dose would be otherwise wasted would be helpful.”
On Nov. 9, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw was asked when third doses may be best suited for the general population.
“We know from our data that vaccines continue to provide very strong protection against severe outcomes for the general population, and those groups that are currently eligible are those who may have an increased risk, which again, is why they’re now able to receive that third dose,” she responded.
“So I think there’s no specific timeline with respect to decisions. Again, we continue to monitor the evidence and make recommendations based on best available evidence.”
By comparison, B.C. has rolled out its full third-dose booster plan which will expand to include all British Columbians 12 and older beginning in January 2022.
On Nov. 15, Hinshaw reiterated the importance of waiting at least six months between the second and third COVID-19 dose.
“The available evidence shows that overall protection from the vaccine is best when a COVID booster is administered at least six months after the previous dose,” she said. “By waiting the appropriate amount of time, you’ll receive greater protection from the vaccine for those who are not currently eligible for third doses.
“Please know that we are monitoring the evidence closely and we’ll keep you informed if anything changes to all Albertans.”