Surplus doses of the COVID vaccine are being administered by UK care home and medical staff on an ad hoc basis, resulting in less vulnerable people being vaccinated ahead of those who are more at risk.
The vaccinations are taking place in order to not waste supplies – the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine needs to be stored at -70 degrees and once thawed used within six hours.
But a lack of clear regulations on who should be receiving the surplus vaccine means these decisions are not being made transparently, and in some cases seeing less vulnerable individuals being vaccinated ahead of those on priority groups.
VICE World News has learned of consultants and GPs who have reported surplus vaccines being administered on an ad hoc basis in order to use up spare doses where possible. In one hospital, a former colleague was offered the vaccine ahead of schedule as a result of a surplus.
In another case, a care home in London has been vaccinating friends and relatives of residents, including someone under 30 with no underlying health conditions.
The question of what to do with leftover vaccines is not unique to the UK. In New York, guidelines over vaccine distribution were loosened recently after news emerged of healthcare workers discarding spare doses.
The UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccine and Immunisation (JCVI) has published a priority timetable, but it accepts that “operational considerations, such as minimising wastage, may require a flexible approach.” The JCVI also says that decision around a flexible approach should only be taken “in consultation with national or local public health experts.”
Although some vaccine providers may have too many doses, others are struggling to provide the most vulnerable with the vaccine. Inconsistent vaccine supply and roll-out issues has left surgeries and vaccine centres unable to plan for deliveries, creating issues of shortages and excess supplies. Last-minute changes to policy regarding the distribution of second doses of the vaccine has also led to confusion over appointments and disruptions for GPs.
Have you received the vaccine early despite not being part of a priority group? Are you involved in vaccine distribution and have seen surplus vaccines distributed on an ad hoc basis? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact Ruby Lott-Lavigna at @RubyJLL or email@example.com.
According to NHS England, spare doses should be distributed to avoid wastage. “GPs and vaccination sites are allocated vaccine for people in the key priority groups, who include health and social care staff including vaccinators,” it says, “and guidance has been issued which allows patients outside these groups to be vaccinated in particular circumstances, in order to avoid wastage.”
NHS England guidance states, “Vaccination will be permitted to Patients outside of the announced cohort where the GP practice can demonstrate exceptional circumstances, that it is clinically appropriate and where resources would otherwise have been wasted.”
The Department of Health declined to comment for this article, stating that vaccine distribution was the remit of NHS England.
The news comes as mass vaccine rollout takes place across the UK, amid concerns over the lack of NHS staff receiving the vaccination. The British Medical Association recently made an urgent call for health and social care workers to be provided with the vaccine in order to protect an already depleted workforce in the approaching weeks where COVID cases are expected to rise dramatically.
Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs and a practising GP in East London, said: “GPs and their teams are working exceptionally hard to deliver the COVID vaccination programme to vulnerable and at-risk patients across the community, and despite some teething problems, which are to be expected when delivering a completely new vaccine at this scale and at this speed, the process seems to be running well overall and our members are reporting very positive take-up rates.”
“GP teams are following NHS England guidelines on prioritising patients according to the JCVI prioritisation list, and time is of the essence in order to vaccinate all patients in the top four groups as soon as possible,” he continued. “In cases where there may be spare vaccines, such as when patients do not turn up for their vaccination, GPs will use their clinical judgement and take sensible measures. It is essential that vaccination sites receive timely and reliable information about supply, so they can plan appropriately and continue to vaccinate and protect vulnerable patients quickly and efficiently.”