At least 19 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in Canada are due to expire by the end of the year, according to data received by The Canadian Press.
The Public Health Agency of Canada says there are currently 18.5 million doses in the federal central stockpile, 16.8 million of which are due to expire in 2023.
There are more than 8 million additional doses in provincial and territorial stockpiles, according to data provided by health ministries and departments across the country.
The figures suggest that more than 2 million doses of provincial and territorial vaccines will expire by the end of the year.
However, this may be an underestimate, as Ontario, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island have not disclosed the proportion of doses they will be due by the end of the year. Ontario alone has a supply of 4.8 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine.
“The Government of Canada and the provinces and territories will continue to work to optimize their COVID-19 vaccine supply management and further reduce COVID-19 vaccine surplus and waste,” a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada said in an email.
For example, some of those doses could be used in the COVID-19 vaccine campaign if the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommends further booster shots “based on evolving scientific evidence”.
Other possible options could include donating excess COVID-19 vaccine doses to developing countries, or extending the validity of some doses if they remain effective, the Public Health Agency of Canada said.
Dr. Matthew Miller, director of the DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University, said an intensified injection campaign in the general population in the fall is “possible.”
NACI’s current spring recommendations target more vulnerable groups. They include booster shots for people 65 and older and others who are at high risk for severe illness if it has been six months or more since their last shot or if they had COVID-19.
About 6.7 million doses of the bivalent COVID-19 vaccine in the federal stockpile, specifically targeting the Omicron variant, are recommended for booster shots. Data from provinces and territories shows most of their vaccine supplies are bivalent doses.
National health officials said the non-bivalent vaccine would still be required for first-time vaccinators (the primary series of vaccines) and children under five. More than 80% of Canadians have completed the primary series of COVID-19 vaccines.
In an email to The Canadian Press, Global Affairs Canada said Canada also “stands ready” to donate excess COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries.
But it acknowledges that many low-income countries either don’t require COVID-19 vaccines as they did earlier in the pandemic, or they don’t have the capacity to get them in people’s arms.
“The global landscape has shifted from a period of limited supply to one where vaccine supply now exceeds demand and capacity to manage it,” Global Affairs Canada said.
“So the current challenge is not supply, but domestic delivery, distribution and demand.”
Plus, the time to donate doses is getting tighter as the due date approaches.
A spokesperson for GAVI, the global vaccine alliance that helps oversee COVID-19 vaccine donations, said in an email.
To date, Canada has donated more than 25 million doses of the vaccine, which have been shipped to 30 countries, a GAVI spokesperson said.
Another potential option to reduce vaccine waste is to extend the expiry date of vaccine manufacturers approved by Health Canada.
That’s already happening in PEI, said Morgan Martin, a spokeswoman for the province’s Ministry of Health and Wellness.
“Vaccines in our current stockpile have varying expiry dates, which will be updated if the manufacturer is granted an extended expiry date,” she said in an email.
“For example, the current expiry dates for the Pfizer Infant and Pfizer Pediatric vaccines have been extended and will now not expire until 2024.”
Mina Tadrous, an assistant professor of pharmacy at the University of Toronto, said manufacturers conduct “stability tests” to determine whether a vaccine is still effective beyond its original expiration date.
“Manufacturers basically age something and then test it in a specific environment,” Tadrous said. These tests take into account factors such as refrigeration when determining whether there are conditions that could extend the shelf life.
Because COVID-19 vaccines are new products produced in response to an emergency pandemic, there is no way of knowing how long they will actually last, so their expiration dates are “very tight,” he said.
Over time, Tadrous said, researchers could see how long vaccines and drug formulations can be used and under what conditions, and could revise expiration dates in consultation with Health Canada.
Both Tadrous and Miller said that despite efforts to use as much of the COVID-19 vaccine as possible before it expires, it creates waste.
But that’s not surprising, they said, given the complexities of trying to protect people and forecast vaccinations during a pandemic.
“From a domestic standpoint, we’d rather have too much vaccine than too little vaccine,” Miller said.
—Nicole Ireland, Canadian Press
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