Despite increasing numbers of COVID-19 vaccine doses beginning to expire, vaccine production is still underway at full capacity. If Estonia doesn't manage to change its contracts, it will eventually have to pay producers for the vaccines already ordered.
To date, some 4.2 million doses of COVID vaccines have reached Estonia, just over 2 million of which have ended up shots in arms locally, and another half a million of which have been donated. In all, Estonia has ordered 6.7 million doses of various COVID vaccines.
Minister of Health and Labor Peep Peterson (SDE) said, however, that the first bigger batches of the vaccines are already starting to expire, starting with 19,000 doses of the Novavax vaccine and 44,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
"But a bigger issue is 200,000 doses of Pfizer at the end of January," he stressed.
Although officially unusable, the expired doses have not yet been destroyed, however.
"Should studies indicate that these vaccines have a longer shelf life than initially thought, then producers will extend them again," explained Health Board Deputy Director General Mari-Anne Härma.
Nonetheless, vaccines don't keep forever. The prime ministers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania warned the European Commission in April already that previously sought-after vials would end up piling up in warehouses and ultimately both vaccines and money alike would end up going to waste. The Baltic heads of government asked that the Commission renegotiate the contracts previously concluded with vaccine producers.
Another half million still coming this year
European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides, who arrived in Estonia on Monday, stressed that member states played an equal role to the Commission in signing the contracts in question, and she considers amending them a joint responsibility as well.
"Thanks to concerted efforts, we reached an agreement with both Pfizer/BioNTech as well as Moderna that the vaccines that were supposed to arrive here in the first half of 2022 will be delivered this September and in the fourth quarter," Kyrakides said.
This means that another approximately 550,000 doses of COVID vaccines are still slated to be delivered to Estonia before the year is out. For reference, just some 20,000 doses of COVID vaccines have been administered across the country over the past month.
According to the commissioner, negotiations remain underway to split next year's vaccine deliveries up over the next couple of years instead.
The Pfizer vaccines to arrive in Estonia since September have been adapted for the Omicron variant. These are meant to be administered as booster doses, and cannot be used as initial or second doses. Meanwhile, Estonia has enough doses of older COVID vaccines that everyone who has yet to be vaccinated could start their vaccination course. In reality, however, they aren't being used up.
Minister: We'll pay, but don't produce
According to Peterson, European health ministers recently met with representatives from Pfizer and Moderna as well, and the vaccine producers are allegedly prepared to review their contracts — to a certain extent.
"But they said that they've invested heavily into these production facilities, which were built at our request," the Estonian minister said. "And they want as much throughput there as possible."
He said the best case scenario may lie in the vaccine producers getting paid, but then not producing more of the vaccines.
"We're analyzing possible damages together and are addressing them," Peterson said, adding that they don't want to miss the production, transport, storage and thereafter destruction of the product.
Estonia has already managed to avoid some degree of damages as well. The state had ordered 10,000 doses of the Valneva vaccine last year, and once the company managed to get production going this year, Estonia canceled its purchase. While the deposit wasn't refunded, Estonia nonetheless managed to save €112,000 on the canceled order.
Can't donate either
This spring, the Baltic prime ministers had also sought the Commission's help in donating their vaccines.
When ERR asked Kyriakides how she intended to bring new momentum to vaccine donation, she instead opted to stress on what has already been accomplished thus far.
"The EU has always considered global vaccination essential, and that vaccines be enabled for third countries as well," the commissioner said. "That's why we're working very closely together with COVAX, to ensure that vaccines can be donated to other parts of the world as well."
COVAX, or the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, is a global initiative aimed at ensuring equitable access to COVID vaccines, and Estonia has utilized it in an attempt to donate more than one million doses. In reality, however, the state has only managed to donate 312,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and 144,000 doses of the Janssen, or Johnson & Johnson, vaccine through it.
Estonia has additionally been able to donate another approximately 50,000 doses to Ukraine and 14,000 doses of Pfizer's children's vaccine to Bosnia and Herzegovina via direct contacts.
Donation via COVAX has since all but halted.
"As production facilities are working at max capacity, then it's not just Estonia or Europe seeing surpluses; it's everywhere else in the world too," Peterson explained. "At the same time, vaccination capacity is low particularly in Africa."
The minister said that Estonia is also working together with its Beijing-based ambassador to find new opportunities for vaccine donation in Mongolia, India or elsewhere, adding that every time they meet with other countries' officials in that part of the world, they offer them the vaccine doses as well.
Health Board prepared for stock increases
Following an incident last year in which tens of thousands of doses of vaccines and medicine requiring refrigeration were ruined in a Health Board cold storage facility, the authority rented a new warehouse and relocated both its staff and its equipment there.
"Some of our vaccines are in Health Board interim storage facilities in Kohtla-Järve, Pärnu and Tartu as well," Härma said.
The deputy director general noted that the board was faced with a challenge in September, when approximately half a million vaccine doses arrived in Estonia within the span of a month.
"Then vaccine producers also notified us that instead of arriving in the regular ten packs, the vaccines would now be coming in five packs," she continued. "But that the size of the package would remain the same."
In other words, the same number of vaccine doses would now start taking up twice as much room.
"Then we started realizing that these refrigerators physically will not fit in our storage facility, and we started seeking a private-sector parter that could offer sufficient space," Härma recalled, adding that the Health Board ultimately managed to fit all the fridges in their facility.
"But of course the Health Board has established these backup solutions to ensure that there are enough fridges and space just in case a larger quantity should still arrive all at once."
Editor: Aili Vahtla