Of the millions of Covid-19 vaccine doses administered in South Africa, the vials of Pfizer jabs due to expire make up a very small percentage.
This according to the National Department of Health in response to public enquiries about the 92,370 Pfizer vaccines to be destroyed at the end of March.
“The volume due to expire is equivalent to 0.24% of all Pfizer doses received, which is under the World Health Organization (WHO) 10% acceptable ratio of vaccine waste,” the department assured.
The announcement of the expiring Pfizer vaccines garnered widespread criticism, with experts saying the destruction of the vials was an indictment against the management of the pandemic – both financially and in preventing illness and death.
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The vaccine doses on the brink of expiring are reportedly worth at least R13 million. However, the department insists this is not a unique problem for South Africa.
“Due to the short shelf life of the Pfizer vaccine, all countries are challenged to utilise vaccines before expiry.
“Every effort is being made to ensure that vaccines are utilised efficiently/optimally, and that wastage is minimised.”
Pfizer vaccines expire after nine months and must be stored at -70ºC.
Since February last year, the country received more than 39 million Pfizer vaccine doses, including donations from the Covax facility and international governments.
And until now, no unused vaccines have had to be discarded due to expiry.
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Epidemiologist and public health expert Dr Jo Barnes told The Citizen on Tuesday many vaccine sites were closed, making those already hesitant to get vaccinated even less likely to do so.
She also slammed the “knee-jerk reaction to blame the people”.
The department said the demand for vaccination had waned since the start of the programme, but that “other countries are also facing low vaccine uptake”.
“The challenge of vaccine hesitancy is not only experienced in South Africa, but globally, hence several countries had to dispose of expired vaccines as well.”
It appears giving the vaccines away was also not a viable option, with the department saying countries that could potentially benefit from a donation did not have adequate infrastructure to store Pfizer vaccine vials.
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“The government will remain transparent in this regard and update the South Africans on the management of Covid-19, including the vaccine doses administered and disposed of as a measure of accountability.”
There are currently 897,270 Pfizer vaccine doses in storage due to expire in May; 5,845,800 expiring in June, and 4,831,560 in July.
In total, over 11 million Pfizer doses and 11,162,700 J&J vaccine doses are in stock.
To date, more than 33 million Covid-19 vaccines have been administered.
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Compiled by Nica Richards. Additional reporting by Reitumetse Makwea.