Nearly 15 million doses of Canada's COVID-19 vaccines have expired, including 13.6 million destined for COVAX

'It’s unfortunate COVAX could not use them. It’s also unfortunate that we bought so much AZ that taxpayers’ dollars were effectively wasted'

Christopher Nardi 4 minute read June 15, 2022

OTTAWA — The federal government had to throw out nearly 15 million expired COVID-19 vaccine doses, including nearly 14 million AstraZeneca shots donated to the COVAX vaccine sharing alliance last year.

According to a document tabled in the House of Commons last week, the government disposed of roughly 1.2 million doses of Moderna vaccines that expired either in mid-March or mid-April this year.

But that wastage is just a drop in the bucket compared to the nearly 13.6 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines that the government donated to other countries last year and that sat in the manufacturer’s warehouses until they expired, according to new data provided to the National Post by Health Canada.

That is because, despite a series of donations being proudly announced by the Trudeau government back in July 2021 (including 17.7 million doses of AstraZeneca), it turns out that global vaccine sharing alliance COVAX was already awash in AstraZeneca when Canada’s doses were donated.

COVAX, short for COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, is a joint initiative from the World Health Organization, the GAVI vaccine alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. Its goal was to have countries pool their COVID-19 vaccine resources to ensure equitable vaccine distribution worldwide, namely to developing countries.

Asked about why the alliance did not distribute the nearly 14 million AstraZeneca doses donated by Canada, GAVI director of communications Olly Cann said they arrived “at a time when COVAX was already working to distribute large volumes of the (AstraZeneca) vaccine with recipient countries.”

A Health Canada spokesperson provided a different explanation for the failure to distribute the AstraZeneca shots, blaming low demand as well as vaccine hesitancy and distribution “challenges” in recipient countries.

“Due to limited demand for the vaccine and recipient country challenges with distribution and absorption, they were not accepted. Canada continues to work with COVAX to help address barriers to vaccination,” Health Canada spokeswoman Charlaine Sleiman wrote in an email.

Conservative MP Kelly McCauley said the wasted donated shots are proof of Liberal mismanagement.

“It’s unfortunate COVAX could not use them. It’s also unfortunate that we bought so much AZ that taxpayers’ dollars were effectively wasted,” McCauley said.

“It’s like everything with the Liberals: A for announcement, D for delivery,” he added. “It’s unfortunate that they took such an important issue and made it a PR stunt rather than a sincere effort to help poor countries that did not so massively, massively over-purchase like Canada did.”

At the onset of vaccine development (and before it was known which shots would be approved for use), Canada signed advance purchase agreements (APA) with seven different manufacturers worth over $9 billion. Those APAs allowed them to reserve doses of vaccines before they existed.

The deals guaranteed Canada would receive more than 500 million shots, or enough to vaccinate every single Canadian over 10 times. According to documents tabled in Parliament last week, Canada procured and made 153.4 million COVID-19 shots available as of April 21. At the same time, just over half, or 83 million doses, had been administered.

“Our strategy worked, giving people in Canada early access to safe and effective vaccines. We were among the first countries to start vaccinating and we now have one of the highest coverage rates in the world,” Sleiman said.

But McCauley criticized the Liberals’ “buy so much of everything” strategy as a “disappointing loss of taxpayers’ money.”

Canada has one of the highest vaccine uptakes in the world, with over 80 per cent of adults receiving at least two shots.

But the lion’s share of those shots were either Pfizer or Moderna, meaning other shots are likely to sit in freezers for the foreseeable future unless they are handed off elsewhere.

Both Cann and Sleiman said in their statements that as global vaccine availability increases, a certain number of doses will go to waste before they are used.

“For the first time in our fight against COVID-19, global supply exceeds the ability of countries — lower and higher income — to absorb doses. While it is important to take every measure to ensure doses do not go to waste, increased risk appetite for write-offs is critical when fighting a pandemic, especially as we strive to enable countries to select the best vaccines for their specific contexts,” the GAVI spokesperson said.

“Global vaccine supply increased rapidly in late 2021 and into 2022. The result is that many low- and lower-income countries now have more doses than they can administer before the doses expire. Given this current global imbalance, it’s inevitable there will also be some wastage,” Health Canada noted in a separate statement.

The most recent wasted dose numbers do not include those that expired while in the hands of the provinces, meaning there could be many more lost doses that are unaccounted for as governments administer fewer and fewer vaccines every week.

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