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What happens if you get an expired vaccine?

This article was published on
May 17, 2021

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Getting any expired vaccine can mean that you are not protected as well or at all from a disease. It’s also possible that certain inactive vaccines could cause harmful reactions, but there are not many documented cases of this happening, and no documented cases of this happening with COVID-19 vaccines. Because COVID-19 manufacturers were very cautious in setting expiration dates, it’s possible that COVID-19 vaccines are effective for a short period of time even after the set expiration date.

Getting any expired vaccine can mean that you are not protected as well or at all from a disease. It’s also possible that certain inactive vaccines could cause harmful reactions, but there are not many documented cases of this happening, and no documented cases of this happening with COVID-19 vaccines. Because COVID-19 manufacturers were very cautious in setting expiration dates, it’s possible that COVID-19 vaccines are effective for a short period of time even after the set expiration date.

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What our experts say

It's important to pay attention to expiration dates on vaccines. Certain ingredients can stop working after expiry, which could render a vaccine less effective.

Using an expired vaccine could cause harmful reactions, but there are not many documented cases of this happening. There is no existing data that taking an expired COVID-19 vaccine is dangerous.

Most vaccines have an expiration date of about two to three years. Manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccines were very cautious in estimating how long the vaccines would last; they have an expiration date of about three to six months. Now, a number of manufacturers are asking for extensions of their vaccines' expiration dates. The vaccines still new, so they will need to provide enough data to regulators that prove the vaccines are safe and effective after the original expiry date. Some experts suggest that the vaccines should still be safe a few months after the current expiry dates.

Vaccines can also expire if they are not kept at the correct temperature. Several COVID-19 vaccines have specific storage requirements that include refrigerators and freezers.

Context and background

Because it’s difficult to make sure that COVID-19 vaccines reach countries that are far from manufacturing sites, reach people before the vaccines expire is a challenge in some cases.

In late April, 2021, Malawi planned to destroy more than 16,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine provided by the African Union, because the batch had an expiration date of April 13, 2021. South Sudan plans to discard 59,000 doses for the same reason. South Africa asked The Serum Institute of India to replace a batch of one million doses, which arrived at the start of April, 2021 and had an expiration date of April 13, 2021. 

These countries have chosen to discard doses or asked to discard doses, despite the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) has advised countries to hold on to the expired doses while it assesses if the vaccines could still be used past their set expiration date. Research will continue to assess the efficacy of vaccines past set expiration dates to see if the shelf life can be longer.

Resources

  1. Storage and Handling of Immunobiologics (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
  2. Vaccine Storage and Handling Toolkit (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
  3. Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
  4. Notes from the Field: Administration of Expired Injectable Influenza Vaccines Reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System — United States, July 2018–March 2019 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
  5. Reports of Expired Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine Being Administered — United States, 2007–2014 (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report)
  6. Nigerian immunisation programme accused of distributing expired vaccines (The British Medical Journal)
  7. Are COVID-19 vaccine expiration dates too cautious? (Gavi: The Vaccine Alliance)

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