June 7, 2022 – The U.S. threw out 82.1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses between December 2020 and mid-May 2022, tossing about 11% of the doses distributed.
Pharmacies, states, territories, and federal agencies got rid of doses that expired on shelves before they could be used, that spoiled when the power went out or freezers broke, and that were tossed at the end of the day when no one used the remaining doses in an opened vial, according to NBC News.
The overall number of discarded doses falls in line with public health estimates for large vaccination campaigns using multidose vials, according to the World Health Organization’s vaccine wastage rates calculator. But public health experts have said the waste is still alarming when 53% of fully vaccinated Americans haven’t gotten a booster shot.
“It’s a tremendous loss to pandemic control, especially in the context of millions of people around the world who haven’t even been able to get a first dose,” Sheela Shenoi, MD, medical director of the infectious diseases program at the Yale School of Medicine, told NBC News.
Two retail pharmacy chains – CVS and Walmart – were responsible for more than 25% of the doses that were thrown away, partly due to the high number of doses they handled, the news outlet reported. CVS wasted nearly 11.8 million doses, or about 13% of the nearly 90 million doses it received. Walmart wasted about 10 million doses, or about 22% of the 44 million doses it received.
Five other major pharmacies and dialysis centers – Costco, DaVita, Health Mart, Publix, and Rite Aid – threw away fewer overall doses but a higher share. They wasted more than a quarter of the doses they received, which was much higher than the national average. DaVita, which runs dialysis centers across the U.S., threw out more than 39% of its doses.
What’s more, two states threw away more than a quarter of their doses. Oklahoma tossed 28% of the 4 million doses it received, and Alaska threw away nearly 27% of the 1 million doses it received.
Public health officials have noted that the coronavirus vaccine, unlike other shots, is packaged in multidose vials. That means the doses must be used within hours once a vial is opened; otherwise, the vial must be thrown away.
Some pharmacies, such as CVS and Rite Aid, have said their priority during the pandemic has been offering the vaccine on demand, NBC News reported. If opening a new vial and wasting the other doses means that someone receives a shot, that’s a worthy tradeoff.
“We often have to open a multidose vial at the end of the day for a single walk-in,” CVS told the news outlet . “Those vials have a very limited shelf life, which unfortunately means unused vaccine will be disposed of.”
State health officials and pharmacies have also pointed to the large minimum order requirements as a reason for waste, especially as demand has dropped. In remote parts of Alaska, for instance, even a minimum order size of 100 to 300 doses can be too much.
The CDC is working with manufacturers to create smaller, single-dose vials to reduce waste.
“Vaccine utilization was very high in the early months of the vaccination campaign and has decreased in recent months,” Kate Grusich, a CDC spokesperson, told NBC News.
“However, our commitment to providing vaccine, and now boosters, to anyone who wants one remains unchanged,” she said.