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Millions of U.S. COVID-19 Vaccine Doses Set to Expire and Be Destroyed This Summer

A brown box labeled "COVID-19 vaccine" being held out by an unseen person wearing blue surgical gloves.

Andrey Sarapulov/Getty

Key Takeaways

  • Millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses in the United States are in danger of expiring this summer.
  • The expired doses can be safely destroyed as medical waste.
  • States with low COVID vaccine uptake are scrambling to find people who want to be vaccinated, while people in many other countries still cannot access vaccines.

Millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses have gone unused in the United States in part because of vaccine hesitancy among residents. Many of those unused doses will expire this summer. 

The doses have to find their way into arms before their expiration dates or they’re no longer considered viable and must be destroyed. 

“Expired vaccines are advised not to be used, even if they are only one day past the expiry date,” Jaydeep Tripathy, MBBS, MRCP, a primary care doctor at DoctorSpring, tells Verywell. “Some vaccines have a shorter shelf life, and some are very sensitive to temperature.”

What Happens to Expired Doses?

Vaccine waste can occur if a vial is spoiled or if it expires. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), all vaccine providers must sign a provider agreement stating that they will dispose of COVID-19 vaccine waste in accordance with local regulations.

Vaccine providers must also report the dose waste (and the reasons for it) to the CDC’s vaccine tracking system (VTrckS).

Teresa Bartlett, MD

There is no threat to the public with this unused vaccine as it does not have any live or dead viral particles contained in it.

— Teresa Bartlett, MD

“Providers destroy the unused vaccine by using the biohazardous waste bags,” Teresa Bartlett, MD, senior medical officer at Sedgwick, tells Verywell. The medical waste is then typically handled and disposed of properly by a contracted biohazardous waste company.

Bartlett adds that people should not worry about encountering vaccine waste. “Remember there is no threat to the public with this unused vaccine as it does not have any live or dead viral particles contained in it."

Vaccination Reallocation 

According to the most recent CDC data, vaccination rates have sharply dropped off in the United States. A peak in April saw a seven-day moving average of about 3.4 million doses a day. By early June, that seven-day moving average plummeted to about 800,000 doses a day. Mid-June saw a slight increase to about 1 million shots given. 

Vaccination rates are unbalanced across the U.S. Some states with waning interest and a surplus of vaccines have released their allocated doses to states that are in need.

States Sharing Doses

Mississippi, for example, has stopped receiving doses from the government. Instead, the state has reallocated more than 800,000 doses to Maine, Rhode Island, and a national vaccine pool.

States that have already ordered and received vaccine doses from the government have been trying to figure out what to do with those doses that are about to expire.

Recently, the Oklahoma State Health Department said in a press release that it is facing the waste of nearly 75,000 Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses, though the expiration date has been moved from the end of June to early August.

Michigan—which has already counted more than 65,000 wasted doses—is another state with a surplus. The state has more than 500,000 doses of vaccines that are set to expire this summer.

Experts say that vaccines that are close to expiring can rarely be distributed elsewhere because of temperature requirements and other logistics. Instead, health departments and providers have to get creative.

“Some communities have begun mobile distribution to get out in the community to bring vaccines where people live,” Bartlett says.

Extending Shelf-Life

After reviewing data from ongoing vaccine stability assessment studies, Johnson & Johnson announced in a press release that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently granted the company’s one-dose vaccine a six-week shelf-life extension. 

“Expiration dates are based on vaccine stability and degradation of vaccine components,” Javeed Siddiqui MD, MPH, co-founder, and chief medical officer at TeleMed2U, tells Verywell. “Given the urgency of development, as further data on stability is available, these expiration dates can be modified.”

The extended shelf life for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine gives Oklahoma a little more time to find residents who want the vaccine.

Vaccine Waste and Equity

Looming expiration dates and potential waste has experts raising concerns about COVID vaccine equity worldwide. While more than half of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, that's far more than many other countries have been able to achieve.

Wondwossen Asefa

Every vaccine dose is like liquid gold.

— Wondwossen Asefa

Globally, only 21% of the population has started the vaccination process, and less than 1% of people living in low-income countries have received a dose. In Africa, less than 3% of the population has received one dose of a COVID vaccine.

“Every vaccine dose is like liquid gold,” Wondwossen Asefa, deputy regional director for Africa at Project HOPE, said in a press statement about vaccine rollout challenges. “No country can afford to waste vaccine doses when variants are spreading, and lives are at stake.”

Donating Doses

The vaccine surplus in the U.S. coupled with the shortage in other countries has prompted the Biden administration to donate 80 million doses abroad, according to a White House press briefing.

Sixty million of the donated doses are of the AstraZeneca vaccine—which has not yet been granted emergency use authorization by the FDA. About 20 million are doses of the vaccines are currently available in the U.S.

The large donation makes up over half of the donated doses from all other governments combined, but it is only enough to vaccinate less than 2% of all people in low- to middle-income countries.

The donated vaccines are coming from the U.S. stockpile, not from the doses already delivered to pharmacy chains or to states and distributed to community providers. Those doses still run the risk of going unused and becoming medical waste this summer—even as people elsewhere in the world are scrambling to get vaccinated.

Sean Marchese, MS, RN, at The Mesothelioma Center, tells Verywell that in the U.S., COVID vaccine doses are expiring from a lack of vaccine education, and some places have gotten creative about trying to get people to get vaccinated.

“Some areas are offering monetary incentives to encourage people to get the vaccine,” says Marchese. “It’s a stark contrast to the reality in the rest of the world.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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Article Sources
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  1. Dyer O. COVID-19 vaccine doses expire in US as uptake falls by 68%. BMJ. Published online June 15, 2021. doi:10.1136/bmj.n1536

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Vaccine Task Force. Identification, disposal, and reporting of COVID-19 vaccine wastage. Updated May 18, 2021.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Trends in number of COVID-19 vaccinations in the US. Updated June 20, 2021.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). COVID data tracker. Updated June 20, 2021. 

  5. Associated PressMississippi has turned away hundreds of thousands of shots. Published June 11, 2021.

  6. Detroit Free PressState scrambles to redistribute COVID-19 vaccines, as more than 500K doses set to expire in August. Published June 15, 2021.

  7. Our World in Data. Coronavirus vaccinations. June 18, 2021.

  8. Kaiser Family Foundation. Putting U.S. global COVID-19 vaccine donations in context. Published May 25, 2021.