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Explained: How are COVID-19 vaccines destroyed?

The destruction of COVID-19 vaccine is a complex process which involves crushing, autoclaving and chemical treatments of the expired or unused vials. The unused or expired vaccine vials need to be discarded with utmost safety to avoid bio-hazard.

May 31, 2022 / 12:35 PM IST
Representative image

Representative image

India has administered over 193.45 crore COVID-19 vaccine doses to the eligible population for protection against the coronavirus disease.

Private vaccine manufacturers like Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech have now reduced the production of COVID-19 vaccines as the stockpile growing with the rising coverage rate of vaccine administration.

Recently, SII Chief Executive Adar Poonawalla told CNBC-TV18 that his company might have to destroy a minimum of 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine doses as there is an oversupply.

Speaking exclusively to CNBC-TV18 at Davos, Poonawalla said, “We will lose 200 million doses of vaccines minimum. We might have to destroy them as they are nearing expiry by August-September this year.”

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COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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The destruction of COVID-19 vaccine is a complex process. The unused vaccine vials need to be discarded with utmost safety to avoid bio-hazard. There are set norms to destroy vials of wasted COVID-19 vaccine.

MoneyControl explains the process:

Why are vaccines destroyed?

COVID-19 vaccines contain no preservative and have a limited shelf life.

The vaccine manufacturers are authorised by the regulators to store different formulations of their vaccine within a particular range of temperatures.

In India, currently, COVISHILED has a shelf life of nine months, and COVAXIN, 12 months. If vaccines remain unutilised within the timeframe, the vaccines need to be discarded.

According to a top virologist in India, be it COVID-19 or any other vaccine, due to the presence of immunological substances, these vaccines must be discarded safely.

According to a top official of CDL Kasauli, crushing, autoclaving and chemical treatments are some of the methods employed for disposal of expired vaccine vials.

What are the processes involved in destruction of COVID-19 vaccines without creating bio-hazard?

 One top vaccine manufacturer of India on condition of anonymity, explained the process of destroying COVID-19 vaccines in India.

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According to the company, the glass vials containing the vaccine are crushed in a crushing machine. The liquid vaccine solution is transferred to a kill-tank where the solution is treated with a combination of chemicals and heat.

The treated solution is then sent to an Effluent Treatment Plant for further treatment (to remove chemicals from the water solution) to generate water suitable for further handling.

The crushed glass, rubber stopper and seals are collected and transported to an external facility that conducts safe disposal.

This destruction and handling process does not create any biohazard and is commonly used in the vaccine and biopharma industry.

What is the process employed for vaccine destruction at smaller facilities?

According to one of the top virologists, at the field level, the priority remains the utilisation of vaccines.

“It should be utilised first. If even after re-distribution, if they remain unutilised, then two approaches are adopted. The vaccine vials are to be collected at one place, at a centralised venue. These vials can then be put inside the autoclave and discarded safely. The pits are used to dispose of the bottles,” he said.

The virologist said that smaller hospitals have biological pits where syringes and needles are disposed of. Here, the vaccine vials, in smaller quantity, are disposed of, so that they are not easily identified by the common public.

For disposing of vaccine vials at a larger scale, the autoclave method is used, as the infectious immunological substance needs to be discarded safely, he added.

What are the CDC guidelines on disposing of wasted COVID-19 vaccine vials?

The CDC says that the vaccine vials which cannot be used must be disposed of in accordance with state laws and local practice to avoid unintentional administration.

The discarded vaccines are reported as waste as directed in the “Reporting COVID-19 Vaccine Wastage” section.

Ayushman Kumar
Ayushman Kumar Covers health and pharma for MoneyControl.