[Letter to the Editor] ‘Expired’ Covid-19 vaccines claims are nothing but caterwauling

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Letter to the Editor

By Wong Yao Hing

When news of the administering of purportedly expired Covid-19 vaccines in Sarawak first made headlines, my initial reaction was to quickly ask my parents to hold off their Covid-19 booster shot because I was worried. However, having ascertained relevant information, I realised this worry was unfounded.

The manner in which this issue is publicised and exploited by certain quarters is unsupported by facts, is not in the public’s best interest, and may even lead to unintended negative consequences.

The Malaysia National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency (NPRA) has, on November 16, 2021, announced the extension of the shelf life of the Sinovac and Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines in use in Malaysia. This is not unique to Malaysia alone. Other countries have also extended the shelf lives of Covid-19 vaccines.

The practice of extending the shelf life of vaccines, in general, is an existing medical practice. In the past, recommendations for the extension of shelf lives have also involved vaccines for BCG, rabies, and polio.

Vaccine expiry dates are recommended by manufacturers based on stability tests that are conducted by manufacturers and verified by relevant regulatory bodies. Expiry date decisions are based on factors including — importantly — antigenic value at different storage periods. Most vaccines have an expiry duration of between two to three years.

A typical vaccine takes five to ten years to develop. Prior to Covid-19, the fastest vaccine ever developed was for mumps, which took four years. The Sinovac vaccine was already administered to humans as early as the summer of 2020. Pfizer received emergency use authorisation in the USA on December 11, 2020.

For Covid-19 vaccines, there was simply not enough time that had elapsed to fully determine their shelf lives. No vaccine had been kept in stock long enough to determine longer shelf life. Being responsible, manufacturers also did not extrapolate the shelf life of the vaccine.

However, we now have vaccine samples of different storage lengths for which stability tests can be performed and for expiry dates revised based on scientific evidence.

Continually spotlighting the issue of “expired” vaccines despite repeated explanations already given by the relevant authorities is irresponsible. Public statements by public figures whose words bear influence on the community must be accurate, evidence-based, and backed by relevant domain knowledge.

As aforementioned, NPRA issued a public statement on November 16, 2021, on the decision to extend the shelf lives of the Pfizer and Sinovac vaccines in Malaysia. Further clarifications were made in early January 2022, when some individuals reported being given “expired” vaccines. NPRA has also explained how the public may verify the expiry dates by checking the batch number found on one’s vaccine certificate against NPRA’s vaccine lot registry.

I acknowledge it is difficult to keep abreast with the latest on Covid-19, with so many recent developments and changes happening at a dizzying speed. At the beginning of this article, I shared how I, too, panicked. We are all concerned about the well-being of our loved ones, families, and our community.

However, responding with a knee-jerk reaction based on inaccurate information is never wise. What is worse, prominent leaders making public statements that may cause vaccine hesitancy is potentially disastrous, as evidenced by what happened in Hong Kong in recent months.

The low vaccination rate in Hong Kong, underscored by a lack of trust among its residents, was a key factor in the tragic loss of lives in the recent fifth wave. As a result, more than 9,000 died, including more than 6,500 deaths in one month alone, from March 5 to April 5, 2022.

Even temporary freezer containers were unable to cope with the sheer number of dead bodies. In-patients reported bodies being left unattended in adjacent beds long after death. There was a shortage of coffins, and crematoriums reported a backlog of more than one month to cremate the deceased.

In Sarawak, the vaccination rate among children aged 5-11 is only 29.9 per cent as of April 30, 2022. This is a real cause for concern. The kind of caterwauling by certain public figures, despite clarifications continually and repeatedly given since November 2021, is unproductive, immature, and unbefitting for community leaders, who should model careful, critical and rational thought.

To me, this vaccine expiry issue has become a media circus that is unhelpful, exasperating, and troubling. — DayakDaily

Wong Yao Hing is currently a Lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He previously taught at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

This is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of DayakDaily. Letters to the Editor may be lightly edited for clarity.