'Very, very low' number of doses wasted in massive N.W.T. vaccination campaign

Most of the COVID-19 vaccines were thrown out because there weren't enough people to get the shot. But the Department of Health and Social Services cited damage, contamination and needle malfunctions too.

'Arms don't always line up at 10 and six at a time,' says lead logistician

Kristy Hawes was on her way to the bathroom with her husband and small children in tow, when they saw there was no lineup at the pop-up vaccine clinic and decided to get the shot. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Despite the myriad of challenges associated with storage, transportation and use of COVID-19 vaccines — the N.W.T.'s COVID Immunization Response Team (CIRT) says it has discarded a "very, very low" number of doses since the vaccine campaign began. 

According to data from the territory's Department of Health and Social Services, only 57 doses have been thrown out. That works out to a 0.09 per cent wastage rate, which the department described as "well below" the five per cent wastage rate the federal government had accounted for in each province and territory. 

"We've far exceeded what we were hoping to achieve," said Sean Marshall, CIRT's lead logistician. But, he said, it took "a lot of effort." 

The majority of the wasted doses — 65 per cent — were thrown out because there were not enough people to get the shot before it expired. In the N.W.T., vials of Moderna carry 10 doses of vaccine while vials of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine have six — and both have limitations on how long they can be used for.

"Arms don't always line up at 10 and six at a time," explained Marshall. 

Twenty-one per cent were discarded because they were deemed "unusable." The health department said they could have been damaged, contaminated or the wrong amount was drawn from the vial into the needle. The remaining 14 per cent of doses were discarded because of a malfunction with the needle or syringe. 

Of the 57 COVID-19 vaccine doses wasted, 36 have been Moderna and 21 have been Pfizer. 

No waste clinics an 'accomplishment'

From the end of December to the first week of May, the N.W.T. only used the Moderna vaccine — which, at the outset of the campaign, had to be used within six hours after a vial was punctured — and relied on scheduled appointments. In order to not waste doses then, Marshall said the team would look at the list of appointments for the following day, call people, and see if they were able to come in earlier. 

"Some people were quite co-operative and may have been due for a dose and rather than booking an appointment, made themselves available to come in for mop up doses." 

Both of Marshall's own doses, in fact, were mop up doses. 

"Quite a few of our team members received mop up doses for their immunizations," he said. 

In one case, he said, the vaccination team visited a community where fewer people were available to get the jab than expected. However, the team realized some community members were in Yellowknife and so they packed up, returned to the city, and were still able to immunize those individuals that day.

Marshall said there was always a "feeling of great accomplishment" when a clinic ended and no vaccines were wasted. 

"But we all recognize as well that perhaps the numbers weren't always going to line up. And then, on the occasions when they didn't … it was disappointing, but part of the chore." 

Wastage goals become easier

In mid-June, Health Canada expanded the lifetime of a punctured vial of Moderna — requiring it to be thrown out, instead, after 24 hours. 

"Our team members would have been quite grateful to have had that back in January," laughed Marshall. "We welcome it now, it makes it a lot easier at the end of the clinic that has an unknown number of people coming in to be able to roll doses into the following day." 

Pfizer's lifespan, meanwhile, is determined by the point at which it's been diluted. It has to be used six hours after that, said Marshall. 

The territory also has a lot of COVID-19 vaccine left. 

Of the 72,870 doses of Moderna vaccine it received, there are still 13,130 available. Meanwhile of the 9,360 Pfizer doses received, 6,138 doses are still available.


Liny Lamberink


Liny Lamberink is a reporter for CBC North. She previously worked for CBC London as a reporter and newsreader. She can be reached at