Health authorities in Malawi have incinerated nearly 20,000 expired doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, saying it will reassure the public that any vaccines they do get are safe.
Uptake of the vaccine in Malawi has been low and health workers hope the move will increase public confidence.
Malawi received 102,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the African Union on March 26, and administered almost 80%.
But the expiry date on the labels was April 13 so the remaining doses were taken out of the cold chain.
Malawi’s Principal Health Secretary told the BBC that it was unfortunate they had to destroy the doses but they had little choice.
“When news spread that we had out-of-date vaccines, we noticed that people were not coming to our clinics to get immunised,” said Dr Charles Mwansambo. “If we don’t burn them, people we will think that we are using expired vaccines in our facilities and if they don’t come, Covid-19 will hit them hard.”
He added that burning the doses was “just a formality” as they had already been destroyed.
On the streets of the capital Lilongwe, some people are still worried about the safety of the vaccine.
“I would like to get vaccinated but how sure am I if I go to the hospital I won’t be given the expired vaccines?” shopkeeper Jack Chitete told the BBC.
Malawi is not the only country in Africa to have expired vaccines but it is the first to publicly destroy them.
The World Health Organization (WHO) initially asked countries to hold onto the vaccines until it could establish whether they could still be used, but it now says vaccines already sent out by the manufacturer with a set expiry date should be destroyed.
“While discarding vaccines is deeply regrettable in the context of any immunisation programme, WHO recommends that these expired doses should be removed from the distribution chain and safely disposed of,” it said in a statement on May 17.
Vaccines for other diseases have a shelf-life of up to 36 months. The challenge with Covid-19 vaccines is that they have been in use for less than a year and there is no substantive data around their effectiveness after long periods.
Out of a population of about 18 million people, Malawi has recorded 34,232 confirmed coronavirus cases and 1,153 deaths.