Vaccine wastage is rare in Virginia. But experts say it’s getting harder to avoid.

Vaccine wastage is rare in Virginia. But experts say it’s getting harder to avoid.
A basket of syringes containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine ready to be used at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Va., February 2, 2021. (Source: Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Virginia providers have wasted fewer than 4,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine out of the nearly 6 million administered through late April, according to data provided to the Mercury by the state Department of Health.

The figures only include wastage from settings supplied through the state’s vaccine allocation, which is managed separately from federal programs that routed about 310,000 additional doses to pharmacy partners and other clinics over the same time period.

But for vaccinators, the tiny fraction of state wastage — roughly 0.06 percent of all doses administered — is a testament to the careful logistics that go into planning large-scale clinics. It’s especially impressive, they say, given the delicacy of the two mRNA vaccines — Pfizer and Moderna — that make up most of Virginia’s supply.

As the state overhauls its vaccination strategy, though, experts say wastage is almost guaranteed to go up. That certainty will require providers to make new choices when it comes to managing supply and an overhaul of how the public views the concept of unused doses.

“I think we’re at a point where, since we have supply exceeding demand, we have to understand there will be more wasted vaccines,” said Dr. Costi Sifri, the director of hospital epidemiology at UVA Health. “And that’s because we’re doing things differently now.”

Wastage has been the subject of scrutiny — by the Mercury and multiple national outlets — since the first doses were shipped out in mid-December. With limited supply and high demand, any unused doses were rightly viewed, by both providers and the public, as wasted opportunities to immunize someone against a potentially deadly virus.

But the logistical challenges of available vaccines made wastage difficult to avoid completely. For the first two months of Virginia’s rollout, Pfizer and Moderna were the only vaccines authorized for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine was authorized in late February, but multiple hurdles — including a manufacturing error that led to 15 million discarded doses and a temporary pause to investigate reports of extremely rare blood clotting — have reduced the state’s supply.

Both Pfizer and Moderna use new messenger RNA technology that delivers genetic material to human cells — teaching immune systems to protect themselves against the COVID-19 virus. Neither vaccine contains preservatives, and mRNA is fragile. As a result, both vaccines need to be stored in exceedingly cold environments to keep them stable.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.