Freezer failures and damaged vials behind wasted COVID-19 vaccines in Ontario

Freezer failures, damaged vials and administrative issues are being blamed for COVID-19 vaccine wastage in Canada, after it was revealed that 1,500 doses of the vaccine went to waste in Ontario during the first three months of the immunization campaign.

CTV News Toronto was first to report the tally, which garnered strong reactions from the public, demands for answers from politicians and explanations from the province’s Progressive Conservative government.

Data provided by the Ontario Ministry of Health shows approximately 1,100 of 871,800 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (0.1 per cent) and 400 of 220,200 doses of the Moderna vaccine (0.2 per cent) went to waste between Dec. 14 and Mar. 2 – meaning an average of 19 doses per day were wasted over the 78-day campaign.

If administered, the 1,500 doses would have been enough to fully vaccinate 750 people.

“That is the equivalent of six retirement homes,” Ontario’s NDP Leader Andrea Horwath charged in the provincial legislature. “How can it be that 1,500 vaccines have been wasted in our province?”

While Health Minister Christine Elliott said Ontario is “working hard to [ensure] that there is no waste whatsoever,” she dismissed the concerns as a normal part of any immunization campaign.

“In any vaccination campaign, including in our flu vaccination campaign, there is going to be some degree of waste,” Elliott told the legislature. “What we’re talking about is one per cent waste out of 784,000 shots that have already been given. That means that 99. 9 per cent of the people are getting the shots that they need.”

Niagara Region Public Health – the only Ontario region to voluntarily list their rates of wasted doses -- said while nurses do “everything they can to safely administer every dose possible” a total of 18 doses have gone to waste since the start of the immunization rollout.

“If a vial is damaged we're not able to administer the doses,” the health unit said on social media.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander in charge of Canada’s logistical plan, said while wastage levels across the province are “extremely low,” he pointed to equipment malfunctions as one reason behind wastage.

“Some of the wastage can be explained by at least one failure of a freezer several weeks ago,” Fortin said without specifying where the freezer malfunction took place or how many doses were ruined as a result.

Meanwhile the Ontario Ministry of Health indicated that “insufficient doses from a vial or vaccine storage and administration issues” are behind the province’s share of wasted doses.

Fortin noted that while provinces are expected to report their vaccine data to the federal government, Ontario’s wastage figures are “far higher” than what he has on file.

“We’re going to have to look into this.”