Hundreds of thousands of doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been rescued from the trash after US regulators extended their shelf life a second time, as part of a nationwide effort to rescue expiring vaccines to combat the country’s summer spike in infections.
On Wednesday, the FDA sent a letter to manufacturer Johnson & Johnson saying the doses remain safe and effective for at least six months when stored properly. The FDA move gives vaccinations an additional six weeks as government officials require Americans to get vaccinated.
Similar efforts are underway in many states as public health officials try to ensure that expired vaccines are used before they have to be phased out.
The surge in infections is largely due to the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, which has spread rapidly, especially among unvaccinated people. Vaccination rates rose only marginally after falling sharply from their April peak.
“This is a critical time — we have kids who are back to school in just a few weeks,” said Julianne Van Lew, director of public health in Wyandott County, Kansas.
Federal health authorities have sent an additional 8 million doses of J&J vaccine to states that have not yet been used, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. The company did not disclose specific expiration dates.
The J&J vaccine is not the only vaccine that is about to expire. States also report that many doses of Pfizer and Moderna are nearing expiration dates of six months from the date of manufacture. For example, in Louisiana, about 100,000 Pfizer doses expire in about a week.
Governors are pleading with the public to get vaccinated, and some are offering monetary incentives – $ 100 payments in New Mexico and New York, among other places.
Some states have set up marketplaces for vaccine providers or specialized personnel to re-distribute expiring vaccines where they are needed. Such efforts are being made in New Jersey, Washington DC and Wisconsin.
In Iowa and North Dakota, officials say they are sending out-of-date vaccines to locations where they are most likely to be used.
“The public is very interested in getting J&J, so if we find doses that might go unused, we will pass them on to providers in need,” said Molly Howell, North Dakota’s director of immunization.
Lacey Fehrenbach, deputy director of the Washington State Department of Health for COVID-19 Response, said officials want the doses to be used as efficiently as possible.
“Otherwise, we are working with our suppliers to relocate them, or of course the federal government to get them to other locations where needed,” she said.
Dr. Clarence Lam, acting executive medical director of occupational health services at Johns Hopkins University, was encouraged by the renewal of J&J vaccinations.
“We don’t like it when these supplies are wasted, especially when there are areas of the world where they are needed,” Lam said. “But now I think we can better use the stocks that have already been allocated here in the US.”
The J&J vaccine has been eagerly anticipated because it only contains one injection and requires light refrigeration.
But the vaccine is difficult to use because of several rare possible side effects. This month, US health regulators added a warning about links to a potentially dangerous neurological reaction. This came after a hiatus in April after the injection was linked to a rare blood clot disorder. Government health advisors said the overall benefits of the shot still far outweigh the risks.
Also in April, a vaccine plant in Baltimore was closed by the US Food and Drug Administration due to pollution concerns, forcing the company to throw tens of millions of doses produced under Johnson & Johnson’s contract into the trash.
Pfizer and Moderna have already provided more than enough doses to vaccinate all eligible Americans. More than 150 million Americans have been fully vaccinated with the company’s two-dose vaccines. In comparison, only 13 million, or 9%, were vaccinated with the J&J vaccine.
In total, nearly 164 million people are vaccinated, or just over 49% of the US population, according to the CDC.