US could let millions of Covid-19 vaccines go to waste

The country faces several hurdles as it races to vaccinate its population.

Julia Yeo | January 05, 2021, 10:21 PM

Two lucky friends in Washington, D.C., managed to receive the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine after a pharmacist was about to throw them out.

"Several first responders scheduled to get the Moderna SARS-CoV-2 vaccine had missed their appointments," David MacMillan shared in a video posted on TikTok.

Currently, first responders and healthcare workers in the United States have priority when receiving the vaccine for Covid-19.

Screenshot via TikTok

According to MacMillan, as the mRNA vaccine is unable to last more than a few hours at room temperature, if MacMillan and his friend did not receive the shots, they would have been discarded.

Screenshot via TikTok

While the pharmacist's quick thinking prevented these two precious doses of vaccine from being wasted, millions of shots could be wasted across the country as the U.S. struggles to roll out the vaccines.

U.S. struggles to vaccinate country

While more than 15 million doses of vaccines have been distributed across the country, barely 30 per cent of the doses have been administered, according to Bloomberg's tally.

Vaccines by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were developed at record speed, but the administering of doses has been much slower than expected.

After Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Dec. 11, 2020, the first shot in the country was administered on Dec. 14.

By Dec. 30, 2020, just slightly over 2.1 million doses of vaccines were administered across the U.S., a far cry from Operation Warp Speed's end-of-year target to vaccinate at least 20 million people in the country.

President Donald Trump criticised U.S. state officials for the delay in vaccine administering in a tweet as well.

As of Jan. 5, 2021, around 4.6 million doses have been administered across the U.S., according to Bloomberg. 

Logistical challenges of handling vaccine doses

While U.S. officials expect access to vaccines in the country to increase greatly between Jan. 8 to Jan. 15 this year, many states also face logistical challenges with the handling of both available vaccines.

Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna's vaccines have a shelf life of up to six months according to KGW, but Pfizer's requires ultra-cold storage of roughly -70°C to last that long.

Pfizer's shots will only last for five days at regular refrigeration temperatures.

Moderna's vaccines can last up to six months at regular freezer temperatures of roughly -20°C, and 30 days refrigerated at around 2-8°C, making it more popular for rural areas without the specific equipment to store Pfizer's vaccines.

Once thawed, both vaccines cannot be refrozen.

According to NBC, states such as Arkansas, Kentucky, Utah, Indiana, Wisconsin and Colorado tend to be more logistically challenged, facing oversupply of vaccines in large shipments without sufficient appropriate equipment to keep them.

In Utah, sites to vaccinate teachers and first responders were unable to store Pfizer vaccines, with officials scrambling to obtain ultra-cold storage for them. Few health offices in Kentucky were able to store the vaccines as well, due to the size of shipments and the refrigeration requirement.

Distance is an issue

Besides logistical challenges, distance between people and vaccination sites appear to be a problem as well, according to NBC.

In states such as Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota, more than 10 per cent of people live more than 16km away from the nearest vaccination facility.

Currently, only 15.3 per cent of vaccines have been administered in Kansas, according to Bloomberg's tally, despite having over 150,000 doses distributed to the state.

Snaking queues for vaccines in other states

Other states such as Florida experience the opposite problem, with long lines building up at vaccination facilities, after state governor Ron DeSantis disregarded guidelines set by the CDC to open vaccinations to more people than recommended, reported The Independent.

In some southwestern counties in Florida, hundreds of elderly waited in line overnight for vaccination centres to open.

Some were even seen sleeping in lawn chairs while waiting in queue.

ABC News business correspondent Rebecca Jarvis recounted on Twitter that a family friend in her 80s had waited several hours for a vaccine from 4:30am, and that many at the site were not wearing masks.

She called it a “superspreader” event with many people "crammed together".

CDC guidelines recommended state officials to provide vaccinations for essential workers first. However, DeSantis argued that the guidelines prioritised young people rather than seniors first.

"There's a lot of people who work really hard that the CDC doesn't consider essential, but their family considers them essential. I consider them essential," DeSantis said.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, dozens of cars queued up on the first day that those 75 and older were eligible to be administered vaccine shots.

However, county officials issued a notice just after 10am that day asking those further back in line to come back another day.

Sabotages by conspiracy theorists

In Wisconsin, one pharmacist was accused of trying to destroy hundreds of doses of the vaccine.

Local police said that the pharmacist, Steven Brandenburg, had taken 57 vials of vaccines out of the freezer and left them out for 12 hours, possibly rendering the doses useless, reported NBC.

Each vial contained 10 doses, worth around US$8,550 (S$11200) to US$11,400 (S$15,000) in total.

According to local police, Brandenburg admitted that it was intentional, acting on the belief that the vaccines were not safe to administer.

Fauci says administering of vaccines will pick up

However, despite the lacklustre start to the U.S.'s vaccine programme, Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Jan. 3, 2021 that the rollout of the vaccines is picking up speed, and could be fully on track within a week, reported Bloomberg.

Around 500,000 shots have been administered per day in the first three days of 2021, which was a substantial increase in pace compared to the last two weeks of 2020, Fauci mentioned.

Over 21 million cases of Covid-19 have been reported in the U.S., and at least 350,000 people in the country have died from the disease.

The U.S. is racing to vaccinate its population as quickly as possible, with 400 million doses of vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna to be delivered to the country by July 2021, according to Quartz.

While the creation of the two vaccines at record speed were made possible with the U.S. government, it remains a question whether state officials can overcome the challenges to vaccinate its people.

Totally unrelated but follow and listen to our podcast here

Top image via Unsplash