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GPs had to rearrange Covid-19 vaccination clinics early last week after it emerged the HSE cold chain service delivered vaccines to surgeries with two different expiration dates.
A discrepancy was found between the date on the outer vaccine box and the inner box, which meant GPs had about a day less to ensure the vaccines were administered than originally thought.
At least two deliveries to GP surgeries in different parts of the country were affected by the error which was discovered on Monday 15 February after around a dozen deliveries of 2,700 vaccines were made to GPs nationally, on the first day of the community vaccination rollout to the over 85s.
It is understood the error occurred when staff at the HSE’s cold chain service took vaccines out of cold storage over the weekend and packed them into smaller boxes for delivery on Monday morning.
Two separate expiry dates, 20 February and 18 February, were written on the boxes.
When the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been defrosted it must be administered within 120 hours/five days.
The error put practices under significant pressure to reorganise vaccine clinics in order to ensure the vaccine was administered before it expired, one GP source said. Patients due to attend on Thursday were asked to come in on Wednesday instead.
The source added that the HSE’s error had the potential to “endanger patients and disrupt the vaccine supply”.
“A lot of people had to rearrange clinics and ask people to come in a day earlier, which would be fine for younger people but when you’re rearranging 90 and 95 year olds dependent often on lifts from other people, that’s quite chaotic,” the source said.
“We always thought cold chain would take at least 12 hours but GPs weren’t expecting cold chain to take 26 or 48 hours of the 120 hours to deliver vaccines,” they added, referring to the time left for GPs once they receive the vaccine to carry out administrations.
“All vaccines will still be delivered under a safe time period but it’s put at least two practices under a lot of pressure. It’s a bad start.”
The error has raised concerns about the effectiveness of the HSE’s cold chain service as vaccination deliveries to centres are due to ramp up significantly in the coming weeks.
“It was unfair of cold chain to be doing this. Is this going to happen with every Monday delivery that is boxed on the weekend where suddenly anyone getting a Monday delivery doesn’t have four days to do it and they’re under added pressure to do this in two or three days?”
Affected GPs contacted the HSE to determine the correct expiry date.
IMO GP Committee Chairman Dr Denis McCauley confirmed the error occurred, describing it as “not ideal”.
“There was a hiccup but it was not a disaster”.
“We are not going to give a vaccine that is out of date and we will double check these things. But when there is confusion it adds to confusion. GPs on the ground sorted it out very quickly.”
A HSE spokeswoman suggested that the error was not the HSE’s and said vaccines include one expiry date, which relates to the batch expiry and is visible on the vial label.
“The white box in which the vials are distributed to GPs contains a “use before” date (with a format of date/time). An additional time/date is recorded by the vaccinator to calculate the “discard” time, which is six hours after dilution.
“The information about expiry dates and use before dates is clearly outlined in HSE vaccinator training and clinical guidelines and all those involved with the vaccine programme should be familiar with this.”