As US battles delta variant, tens of thousands of vaccine doses are set to expire

(NEW YORK) — As the delta variant continues to drive the nation’s latest coronavirus surge, tens of thousands of vaccines are set to expire in the coming weeks — with several states already reporting thousands of “wasted” doses.

While the full extent of COVID-19 vaccine waste in the U.S. remains unknown due to data reporting disparities between the states, research by ABC News reveals that several states have thousands of vaccines expiring as soon as next week, and tens of thousands more expiring by the end of August.

Among the states reporting a high number of expiring doses are several states with low vaccination rates, like Alabama and Arkansas, where coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have been on the rise for weeks.

Local health officials told ABC News they are concerned the doses will go to waste if demand does not pick up.

In Arkansas, where only 38% of eligible people are fully vaccinated, the number of doses that are expiring has drastically increased over the summer. In April, the state reported that 60 of its doses had expired, but by May the number had jumped to 3,338. Last month, it rose to 5,744.

Health officials in Alabama confirmed to ABC News that in the past two weeks, approximately 35,147 doses have been discarded — accounting for more than half of the 65,000 doses that have gone unused in the state since the beginning of the year. While the state’s current vaccination rate is only 34%, a health official said there’s been a recent uptick in vaccination orders from some health providers.

In Mississippi, where the 35% vaccination rate is one of the lowest in the country, Health Department officials told ABC News that roughly 40,600 doses have expired so far. The state did not have additional numbers for the doses that are set to expire this month.

Iowa, Idaho and Oregon are also among the states that have tens of thousands of doses set to expire at the end of the month.

In addition to expiring, there are other reasons vaccine doses might not get used, health officials across the country told ABC News. Those include dropped syringes and vials, syringes broken off in the bottle, and syringe malfunctions, which happen routinely and are an expected part of delivering vaccines.

To prevent more COVID-19 doses from expiring, some states told ABC News that they have stopped ordering new doses and are working with pharmacy partners to try to transfer existing doses to other states.

One of those states working to reallocate doses, North Carolina, has approximately 589,180 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 14,629 doses of Moderna that are expected to expire by the end of August, a health official told ABC News. The state, in which roughly 58% of adults have been fully vaccinated, has approximately 51,000 doses that have expired since the start of the its vaccination effort, the official said.

In Minnesota, where over 40,000 doses have either expired or not been administered, officials have set up a process to match providers who have excess inventory with other providers who are in need of doses. In July, 7,000 doses were moved around the state.

A similar approach is being used on the national level by the federal government’s Retail Pharmacy Program that distributes vaccines to select pharmacy chains, after the Biden administration told governors in May that unclaimed doses will go into a federal pool to be made available to states in need. The U.S. is paying vaccine-makers approximately $19.50 per Pfizer vaccine dose and $15 per Moderna dose.

In Michigan, where the state health department told ABC News that more than 200,000 vaccine doses have gone unused as of Monday, state officials haven’t approved any new vaccine orders since June.

In the past week, the state saw approximately 16,000 vaccines expire, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and another 4,000 to 7,500 Moderna doses are expected to expire this week. So far, a little over 54% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, with such large numbers of vaccines set to expire, some states including New Jersey and Oregon are working with vaccine manufacturers and FDA officials to determine if vaccine expiration dates can be extended.

For health experts like Dr. Susan Hassig, an associate professor of epidemiology at Tulane University School of Public Health, the amount of doses being wasted around the country is especially disappointing due to the many countries around the world that are struggling to get enough vaccines.

Although logistical issues and legal hurdles make it difficult to ship doses abroad, Hassig says it’s still frustrating to see unused vaccines that could benefit other countries.

“We have this amazing scientific product to help protect us and help us dampen down this pandemic, and it is going to waste,” Hassig told ABC News. “There are people and health workers in many countries who are desperate to get vaccinated, while doses are expiring and being wasted every day in this country.”

But some states are reversing the trend.

Prior to last month, Louisiana was among the states that had requested a stop to the delivery of new doses. Nearly 91,000 doses went unused as the state struggled with a low 37.5% vaccination rate.

But in the last month, Louisiana’s vaccination rate has seen a sudden jump — so the state has sharply increased its weekly vaccine orders. In the first week of July, there were only a total of 12,873 doses ordered statewide — but by the last week of the month, orders had jumped to 74,000.

The state’s climbing vaccination rate is also reflected in the national numbers, which last week saw vaccination rates increase by nearly 20% in young Americans age 11-17, and by more than 25% in all U.S. adults.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.