In what has been described as an “absolute scandal”, the government failed to donate the doses to poorer countries struggling to access Covid vaccines – despite previous promises to redistribute supplies that were deemed surplus to requirements in the UK.
The doses were no longer needed in Britain after the decision was made in May to stop offering the AstraZeneca vaccine to younger age groups because of concerns over rare blood clotting.
This left an excess of vaccines, 604,400 of which eventually expired in August before being destroyed at the end of the month, according to data obtained by a Freedom of Information request.
Labour said it was “staggering that such a colossal quantity of life-saving jabs were allowed to go to waste”, while Oxfam said it was “disgraceful” that doses were destroyed while health workers on the front line in poorer countries remained unprotected against Covid-19.
At the G7 summit in June, the government committed to donating 100 million vaccine doses to poorer countries by mid-2022. To date, some 20 million have been shipped abroad.
However, to meet its target for next year, the UK needs to more than double its rate of donation from 5.1 million doses a month to 11.5 million, analysis suggests.
Oxfam said the revelation that the UK had destroyed more than 600,000 doses was “an absolute scandal” and “very much the tip of the iceberg”.
“Our estimates suggest at least 100 million vaccine doses could go unused and expire in G7 countries by the end of this year,” said Anna Marriott, a health policy manager at the charity.
“This number could increase even further to around 800 million wasted doses by mid-2022. There’s a clear case that rich countries have to get their act together here.
“Their short-sighted vaccine nationalism and their free pass to big pharmaceutical giants to profit as much as they like from these these publicly funded vaccines is prolonging the pandemic and costing lives.”
While more than 46 million people in the UK have received both vaccine doses, with a further 12.6 million booster jabs administered, the rate of vaccination in poorer countries remains low.
In the world’s lowest-income nations, only around 2 per cent of people are fully vaccinated and approximately 96 per cent have yet to receive a first dose, according to parliamentary research.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health minister, said the government needed to “ensure that where we have surplus supplies, we are meeting our international responsibilities, not chucking vaccines in the skip”.
Medicins Sans Frontières (MSF), an international emergency health aid organisation, said it was “painful to see” doses needlessly thrown away in the UK, which has enough supplies ordered to revaccinate the entire population three times over.
“There has been almost total secrecy around vaccine supplies, as well as concrete plans to ensure fairer access for countries desperately in need of doses,” said Victorine de Milliano, the UK policy adviser for MSF.
“In a time when vaccines and other Covid-19 medical tools are scarce and some countries have inoculated less than 1 per cent of their population, this level of wastage is painful to see.”
Concerns are also continuing to persist that the doses donated abroad by the UK are often close to their expiry date, making it challenging for recipient nations to rollout the supplies in time.
“Britain has donated shamefully few vaccine doses,” said Nick Dearden, director of the campaign group Global Justice Now. “And many of the quantity of doses we have given were on their expiry date.”
Global Justice Now said the government had failed to properly develop a plan for routinely donating its excess of vaccine doses, having instead been focused on “grabbing as many as possible”.
The UK Health Security Agency said the 604,400 destroyed doses were no longer needed for the national rollout following the change in vaccination policy for under-40s and “were unable to be donated due to a short shelf life”.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The NHS has done a phenomenal job of vaccinating people as quickly as possible with more than 86 per cent of adults in the UK double jabbed.
“The UK government rightly did everything it could to prepare for a vaccination programme that could protect the entire adult population, including ordering doses to cover 100 per cent of eligible people, and the skill of the individual vaccinators has meant they’ve also been able to extract more doses from a single vial than originally expected.”