The “Unusable Vaccines”

Written by: Sarah

Graphics by: Allison

Edited by: Joaquin

“You do what you have to do to save that life no matter what.”

Dr. Hasan Gokal had six hours to find ten people to distribute the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to. Now that the vials had been punctured, he would have to find eligible people to inoculate, or the vaccines’s precious shelf life would run out, and the vials would go to the bin. Dr. Gokal scrambled to find acquaintances and strangers alike in an effort to not waste the precious vaccines – and for his actions, Dr. Gokal was fired from his government job and charged with stealing ten vaccine doses.

Words directed at him included “petty thief” and “selfish nepotist.” Others included “unlikely hero.”

Dr. Gokal said he was merely trying to salvage a vial that had already been opened — and that the charges upended his life and ruined his reputation. Officials maintained that he violated procedure and should’ve returned the remaining doses to the office, or thrown them away. However, Dr. Gokal recalls that during the onset of the vaccine distribution, state officials had advised him to “Just put it in people’s arms. We don’t want any doses to go to waste. Period.”

One official had even questioned the lack of “equity” among those that had been vaccinated, namely, that there were “too many Indian names” in that group. Dr. Gokal had vaccinated both acquaintances and strangers, from a mother with a child who uses a ventilator, to a woman with dementia, to his own wife who suffered from a pulmonary disease, making her vulnerable to the COVID virus. 

While under both fire and praise, Dr. Gokal continues to pay a price for not wasting a vaccine in a pandemic. The irrevocable damage to his reputation and loss of a job he is endeared to will haunt him, he says. However, both the Texas Medical Association and the Harris County Medical Society recently issued a statement of support for physicians like Dr. Gokal who find themselves scrambling “to avoid wasting the vaccine in a punctured vial.”

Dr. Gokal’s plight is playing out as pandemic-weary Americans scour websites and cross state lines, all in pursuit of a vaccine in short supply. The case is open wide to interpretation of the ethics of the country’s vaccine rollout. With so many people anxious and desperate for a cure, some are questioning Dr. Gokal’s decision to distribute vaccines to those who had not waited, or gone through the lawful process to be there. However, the vaccines would have otherwise gone to waste, a certainly worse outcome. In a time of need and stress, Dr. Gokal should be applauded for fulfilling the duty of a doctor, for making sure that nothing would go to waste.