More than 15 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been thrown away or wasted since March, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data received by NBC News through a public records request.
The 15.1 million wasted doses might even be an undercount, according to the report.
"It's really tragic that we have a situation where vaccines are being wasted while lots of African countries have not had even 5% of their populations vaccinated," England's University of Warwick professor Sharifah Sekalala told NBC News.
"A lot of the global south is unvaccinated. The African continent is still below 10%, and that's just a huge inequality, and it's really problematic."
Among the largest pharmacies to have self-reported more than 1 million wasted doses, according to the CDC:
- Walgreens - 2.6 million.
- CVS - 2.3 million.
- Walmart - 1.6 million.
- Rite Aid - 1.1 million.
"While we regret having to dispose of any vaccine, we're extremely proud of our store employees who've helped administer more than 30 million doses," a CVS spokesman wrote in an email to NBC News.
"When given the option of potentially saving a life or slightly improving our reported waste figures, we'll always choose the former."
Walgreens, Walmart, and Rite Aid did not respond to NBC News' requests for comment.
"It's an equity issue," United Kingdom’s University of York professor Tim Doran told NBC News. "You've got a very wealthy country with good access to vaccines essentially throwing vaccine away, and a lot of vaccine away, and you've got other countries and other communities within those countries who would really require it, who were having to wait and aren't getting access to vaccine and that's making them susceptible whilst they are awaiting vaccination."
The data does not include all states or federal providers and does not list reasons the doses had to be destroyed and not administered, according to the report.
Among the reasons a dose might need to be destroyed, according to NBC News:
- Cracked vial.
- Error diluting the vaccine.
- Storage or freeze malfunction.
- Lack of demand.
- Unused doses in an opened vial.
Still, according to CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund in an email to NBC News, the percentage of wasted COVID-19 doses "remains extremely low, which is evidence of the strong partnership among the federal government, jurisdictions, and vaccine providers to get as many people vaccinated as possible while reducing vaccine wastage across the system.
"As access to COVID-19 vaccine has increased, it is important for providers to not miss any opportunity to vaccinate every eligible person who presents at vaccine clinics, even if it may increase the likelihood of leaving unused doses in a vial," her email statement continued.
As of Tuesday, more than 438 million doses have been distributed in the U.S. to date, while 111.7 million additional doses have been given from the U.S. to other countries as of Aug. 3, according to NBC.
The reported number of wasted doses by month:
- 3.8 million in August.
- 4.7 million in July.
- 4.4 million in June.
The numbers in June and July were more than in March, April, and May combined, according to NBC News — data that suggests as the vaccination rates slow the waste increases.
The report noted vaccination rates have increased in August due to the rise of the delta variant and reports of increased hospitalizations leading more people to go be vaccinated.
State Health Departments have not reported wasted doses that high, but four did report over 200,000 wasted doses, according to NBC.
- Texas wasted 517,746 doses.
- North Carolina wasted 285,126 doses.
- Pennsylvania wasted 244,214 doses.
- Oklahoma wasted 226,163 doses.
Lara Anton, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, gave a few explanations for the wasted doses, including having "instructed vaccine providers to prioritize vaccinating people when they came in to get vaccinated rather than waiting until they found enough people to use every dose in the vial before opening it," she told NBC News.
Also two vaccine storage facilities in Texas suffered power outages which destroyed more than 47,000 doses in May, KXAN Austin reported.
Representatives from North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma health departments did not respond to NBC News' requests for comment.
"It's a failure of the current system where rich countries buy their individual batches of vaccines, and then have to think about what's going to happen if they don't use them," Sekalala told NBC News. "This led to an over-purchase, with people buying up supplies that they didn't need or weren't able to use."
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