Two years after Canada began its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, more than 80 per cent of the population has been vaccinated, with nearly 95 million doses administered going into arms — but that has not come without waste.
As of Dec. 1, approximately 10.8 million doses of Pfizer, Moderna and Novavax COVID-19 vaccines held domestically in the federal inventory have been disposed of or are awaiting disposal due to expiry, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).
Additionally, 13.6 million AstraZeneca doses purchased by Canada also had to be discarded by the manufacturer before they could be used, PHAC told Global News.
Vaccine wastage to some extent is almost inevitable in any epidemic as more is usually ordered than needed, but the “high volume” of doses binned by Canada is “very concerning” as it highlights the cracks in the health-care system, said Kerry Bowman, a professor of bioethics and global health at the University of Toronto.
“Buying more than we needed can be quite reasonable if you have a solid plan for surplus,” he said.
“A lot of effort went into getting the vaccines, obviously, but it really highlights the huge weaknesses within the Canadian system in terms of data sharing and tracking.”
Why are COVID-19 vaccines being wasted?
PHAC says there are barriers to putting vaccines in people’s arms due to limited global demand and challenges with distribution and uptake in recipient countries.
Other countries have also reported vaccine wastage during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the United States, more than 82 million COVID-19 vaccine doses were discarded between December 2020 and mid-May, NBC News reported, citing data received from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, almost seven million doses were wasted as of July 2022, according to a government report released in November.
A report by Canada’s auditor general released on Tuesday said that even though the federal government quickly secured a sufficient supply of COVID-19 vaccines for Canadians, it was “unsuccessful” in minimizing wastage.
PHAC ended up with a “large surplus of doses” due to problems with the technology used to track the distribution and use of vaccines as well as issues with data-sharing between the federal and provincial governments, Karen Hogan noted in her report.
The audit found that most of the 32.5 million doses that were in the national inventory as of May – worth $1 billion – are set to expire by the end of the year.
And more wastage is likely going to happen in the weeks ahead if the doses are not used or donated soon, Hogan said.
“Canada, like other countries, is trying to donate some of its surplus,” she wrote.
Of the 50 million doses deemed surplus, more than 25 million doses have been delivered as donations, as of Nov. 9, according to Global Affairs Canada (GAC).
What about donating doses?
To ensure equitable global access to vaccines during the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) and its partners launched the COVAX sharing facility in 2020.
As of Nov. 14, 1.95 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses had been allocated to COVAX. Of these, 1.84 billion doses have been shipped to low-incomes countries, according to the GAVI vaccine alliance that is working in partnership with the WHO.
While more than 50 per cent of the COVAX pool is made of up of Advanced Purchase Agreements (APA) with vaccine manufacturers, 828 million doses have come through donations from 33 countries and benefited 112 nations.
As part of that global effort, Canada pledged to donate 200 million doses by the end of 2022.
But so far, the federal government is falling short of that goal. To date, Canada has donated the equivalent of more than 140 million doses to COVAX, which continues to allocate and deliver the vaccines according to country demand, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) said Thursday.
Despite that, Ottawa says it remains “on track to meet” its commitment by the end of the year, according to a statement by GAC to Global News.
Meanwhile, global vaccine inequity is still a concern that has been raised repeatedly by the WHO over the course of the pandemic.
At a UN General Assembly meeting in September, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said only 19 per cent of the population of low-income countries is vaccinated, compared with 75 per cent in high-income countries.
“These inequities are not just a risk for those they affect directly; they are a risk for all of us,” Tedros said.
Bowman said Canada can do better both domestically and internationally.
“We really did not do a good job from a global perspective,” he said.
“When you talk about pandemics, you have to think globally.
“It was very clear that the priority in Canada in this crisis was only Canada and even with that we had problems.”
COVID-19 pandemic lessons
The federal government says it will review lessons learned during COVID-19 to better prepare for future pandemics.
These efforts, according to PHAC, include collaboration with GAC and COVAX to donate surplus doses to support global health and vaccine equity objectives.
“The Government of Canada will continue to work closely with provincial, territorial, and indigenous partners to ensure vaccine supply aligns with program requirements, the most recent scientific data, and expert advice,” PHAC said.
To prevent further wastage, Bowman said Canada should improve its data sharing and tracking and plan better for global commitments.
— with files from Global News’ Teresa Wright