South Sudan health officials have stopped administering 60,000 doses of the COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccine that are past the expiration date but still have a shelf life of at least six months, according to the drugmaker and the World Health Organization.
The doses, which were donated by the mobile telecommunications network MTN and the African Union (AU), arrived in Juba about three weeks ago.
Dr. Richard Lako, the incident manager for COVID-19 operations at the South Sudan health ministry, told reporters Sunday in Juba that the vaccine is no longer being used.
"We later discovered the lifespan of this vaccine is just remaining 14 days, so immediately we started engaging because if we start them, we may not be able to finish, so the ministry is now engaging the AU and the team with regards to that effect," Lako said.
The health ministry is working with the country's food and drug authorities to safely dispose of the doses, according to Lako.
"Not all medicine disposal can be done easily. Vaccines are very difficult and it has to be handled differently. The drug and food authority already led the policy which, as a ministry, we have to abide by and now engage with the AU and other people to see how we deal with this," he said.
World Health Organization officials present at the briefing declined to answer questions about the vaccine's expiration date, but India's drug regulator has allowed the vaccine — which goes by the brand name Covishield and is made by the Serum Institute of India — to be used for up to nine months from its manufacture date, rather than the prescribed six months.
AstraZeneca says its product can be stored, transported and handled at normal refrigerated conditions for at least six months. The World Health Organization website also gives the shelf life of six months for Covishield and the South Korean-made AstraZeneca shot.
The AstraZeneca doses have been exported to dozens of countries, including South Sudan.
Dr. Guyo Argata Guracha, the WHO emergency team leader in South Sudan, noted at Sunday's weekly COVID press briefing the vaccine's expiration date is different from the vaccine's shelf life.
"From the WHO point of view, these are new vaccines, the expiry or it is called shelf life not even expiry date really — actually let it be shelf life, we don't have to talk about expiry date — the shelf life of this vaccine is six months from now. We cannot say it is really expired but we can talk of the shelf life, which is six months," Guracha said.
The doses donated by MTN and the AU arrived in Juba shortly after 132,000 AstraZeneca doses arrived in the capital from the COVAX facility, a global collaboration that was formed to speed up the production and equitable distribution of COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines.
Lako said the COVAX doses remain usable up to July. He said about 2,000 people — mostly health workers — have been vaccinated in South Sudan.
The government recently lifted a partial lockdown on the country after registering a significant drop in COVID-19 cases over several weeks, but that doesn't mean the public should stop wearing face masks, Lako said.
"The cases are coming down but COVID-19 is there, we still have some pockets of reporting areas. We have actually spotted in the last three or four weeks still places like Pariang, Pamet, Nimule, Mapuordit and Agok in particular," added Lako.
To date, South Sudan has recorded 10,475 positive cases, 10,215 recoveries, and 114 COVID-19 deaths.