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What Is Vaccine Wastage And Is It Happening In Alberta?

Officials have spoken out after reports of wasted COVID-19 vaccine doses in Alberta.

Right now, the COVID-19 vaccine is equivalent to lifesaving, liquid gold.

As vaccinations continue to roll out across Canada, speculation is swirling on social media about vaccine wastage, the worrying scenario that not all of the vaccine doses are going into the arms of Canadians that need it.

This week, Alberta health officials took to social media to try and dispel rumours that doses there are being thrown out. But how concerned should you be about wasted vaccine?

Here’s what you need to know.

What is vaccinate wastage and how does it happen?

Vaccine wastage refers to doses of vaccine that are somehow destroyed or unusable. It can happen for many reasons, from broken vials to human error.

According to the World Health Organization, there are two big types of vaccine wastage: closed vial and open vial.

Closed vial is wastage that occurs primarily due to ineffective temperature control, temperature monitoring and stock management during storage and transportation. Open vial wastage happens usually when workers discard already opened doses, perhaps because of excess vaccine at the bottom of a vial.

A health-care worker withdraws vaccine from a vial.
kovop58 via Getty Images
A health-care worker withdraws vaccine from a vial.

“Since vaccines account for a significant portion of immunization programme costs, ensuring that wastage is minimized without jeopardizing vaccination coverage is key,” a 2019 WHO document reads.

But the organization also notes that some degree of wastage is inevitable, particularly with vaccines like the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine which requires specific temperature controls.

Why are people in Alberta concerned about it?

Rumours have circulated on social media in the past week suggesting that large amounts of the COVID-19 vaccine have been wasted in Alberta. On Monday, an Edmonton-area doctor suggested staff were being instructed to discard unused vaccine doses at the end of each day.

What did Alberta officials say?

According to a statement Tuesday from Alberta Health Services (AHS), this is not happening and there have been no significant reports of wastage in the province.

“All immunization programs have some degree of inadvertent vaccine wastage due to issues such as refrigeration errors, broken vials, expirations and appointment no-shows. That is expected, and usually minimal,” the statement read.

The statement added that in the case where an opened dose is not used, workers have been instructed to immunize on-site staff before it expires to ensure doses are not wasted.

During a briefing Tuesday, Alberta chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw repeated these points.

“We are working hard to immunize Albertans as quickly and safely as possible,” she said. “Some human errors are unavoidable, but these are being kept extremely limited. Every dose counts and we want to immunize as many Albertans as possible.”

Hinshaw also discouraged Albertans from spreading rumours online, and encouraged them to “check facts” about what they read on social media.

What about other vaccines?

According to AHS, between one and six per cent of annual influenza vaccine doses are considered wasted, whereas only 0.3 per cent of COVID-19 vaccine doses have been wasted so far there.

Vaccine wastage is a broad issue with everything from flu shots to hepatitis vaccines. The WHO is working to address vaccine wastage — not just when it comes to COVID-19 — in terms of securing logistics like freezers and transportation to ensure vaccines aren’t wasted.

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