Vials of vaccine hold more doses than previously thought

December 17, 2020
five vials of COVID-19 vaccine
Rumors began swirling as early as Tuesday that each vial of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine might hold more than five doses. Photo by Sarah Pack

The extra nugget in your value meal. That five-dollar bill you forgot about in your jacket pocket. 

Little discoveries can often make a day just that much sweeter.

So when pharmacists across the nation started to realize that the vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine – each of which are supposed to contain five doses – had as many as one or two more in them, it was a pleasant surprise to say the least.

“We were kind of hearing the buzz about this,” said MUSC infectious disease expert Krutika Kuppalli, M.D. “But you can’t know for sure it’s real until it happens to you.”

Jason Mills, Pharm.D., pharmacy supply chain manager for MUSC, said his team realized the vials contained extra vaccine immediately. 

“Overfill, especially with injectables, is fairly common,” he said. “But to have enough to make additional doses was a real surprise.” 

It took some time – nearly 48 hours after many hospitals had already begun administering the vaccine – but the FDA eventually said that those extra doses could be used. Prior to that, health care workers across the nation had been disposing of the extra vaccine, due to the constraints set forth by the government, which said that only five vaccines could be administered per vial.

Fortunately for MUSC, the state’s governing body on all things vaccine, SCDHEC – which takes its cues from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – moved quicker when it ruled earlier in the day to begin using the extra vaccine. 

“I’m really proud of South Carolina for adopting that stance so quickly,” Mills said. “They weren’t going to let an administrative barrier get in the way of giving this vaccine to as many people as possible.”

Mills estimated that in light of this development, MUSC might be able to vaccinate as many as 40% more people.

“We understand how precious this stuff is, so we’re really thrilled,” he said.