Scott Morrison has blamed the extremely slow pace of Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout on major supply issues, namely getting doses from overseas.
Given that, you would think what little stock the country does get its hands on would be managed with extreme care.
But in the several short weeks that jabs have been going into the arms of 800,000 Australians, thousands more people could have been vaccinated if not for seemingly preventable wastage.
Improper handling, incorrect storage, the wrong type of needle and flawed delivery practices have seen doses spoiled.
Overnight, a Queensland doctor said 100 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine had to be destroyed due to botched handling during delivery.
“Every hundred, every thousand we lose is just gut-wrenching because we can’t get the vaccinations done,” Brisbane GP Ian Williams told Channel 9.
Dr Williams said the shipment of the vaccine sent to his clinic was transported incorrectly and arrived wasted, with its in-built sensor showing it wasn’t held at the required temperature.
“The delivery driver said, ‘Oh, another one’,” he claimed.
Channel 9 reported that a second GP clinic in Brisbane also received a spoiled batch of 100 vaccine doses that were transported at the incorrect temperature.
And it reported that another batch of vials was left on a clinic’s doorstep, forcing them to be destroyed.
“I’ve heard plenty of other examples of other practices having to give back the vaccine or not take delivery because the cold chain has been breached,” Dr Williams said.
In March, it was revealed that thousands of doses of the Pfizer vaccine in NSW were wasted.
And in February, an aged care home in Victoria revealed it had been forced to destroy 25 vials of the Pfizer vaccine after it was incorrectly stored.
Government tight-lipped on extent of wastage
As Australia’s COVID vaccine rollout began, health authorities were at pains to reassure the public that any wastage of the limited supply would be taken seriously.
The Pfizer jab must be stored at extremely cold temperatures to avoid spoiling, which has seen batches lost overseas.
In addition, COVID vaccines are distributed in multi-dose vials that are uncommon in Australia and which few health workers would be familiar with.
The World Health Organisation estimates that multi-dose vials have an average wastage rate of between 15 to 25 per cent.
Australian authorities expect inevitable wastage through breakages and transport errors.
As well as providing training and support, Health Department secretary Professor Brendan Murphy said the government would take repeated wastage issues very seriously.
“We want to be able to track every vial and every dose and have real-time results on wastage,” Professor Murphy told Senate Estimates in February.
“Frankly, if your vaccination clinic has an unacceptable wastage rate, they may no longer be a clinic because it’s a really important issue for us.”
But getting the actual data from that real-time monitoring of wastage isn’t easy, news.com.au has discovered.
A spokesperson for the Federal Department of Heath said states and territories are required to report daily on any instances of wastage.
However, it could not detail how many vaccine doses have so far been wasted across Australia.
“The Australian Government has undertaken detailed implementation planning with jurisdictions and providers to ensure access to doses and to minimise wastage,” the spokesperson said.
“The Vaccine Operations Centre has strong procedures in place to closely monitor wastage and receives daily reports on wastage from vaccination providers.
“As vaccine availability is limited in the early stages of the rollout, vaccination providers are encouraged to minimise wastage wherever possible through grouping bookings within a vaccination session to match the number of doses available.”
Full transparency or tricky accounting?
News.com.au contacted the health departments in each major state to query the number of vaccine wastages they are required to report to federal authorities each day.
A NSW Health spokesperson said the government mandated it disclose “any wastage defined as five or more vials in a single instance”.
On that basis, “to date NSW has not reported any such instances”.
But it emerged last month that thousands of doses had been wasted because a particular type of syringe is not available in the state.
The needles currently being used to administer doses, while common, are only able to extract five doses from the Pfizer multi-use vials, which contain six.
As a result, some 2000 doses had been lost by early March, it was estimated.
But, on a technicality, that is not considered ‘wastage’ because the Federal Government considers a sixth dose “a bonus”.
“When we ordered, we based that on the foundation of five, and more than that is a bonus, it’s not the other way round,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said at the time.
A spokesperson for the Health Department in Western Australia said 969 doses have been lost through wastage so far, which represents 1.6 per cent of all 60,000 doses administered.
“Almost half of the wastage was the result of cold storage errors by third parties in the delivery process,” the spokesperson said.
“Other wastage arose from a number of issues, including inability to extract the extra dose from the vial, which is a recognised challenge.”
A request for wastage data was also sent to health authorities in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia, but responses were not received before publication.