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Red flags as SANDF spends millions on drug to 'treat Covid', despite no proof that it works

22 October 2020 - 10:51 By Thanduxolo Jika
Interferon is among the drugs rejected for treatment of Covid-19 cases by the department of health. File image
Interferon is among the drugs rejected for treatment of Covid-19 cases by the department of health. File image
Image: 123rf/Jarun Ontakrai

South Africa has paid more than R35m for a skin cancer-approved drug to treat Covid-19 infected patients, despite it being rejected by the country's health minister as a treatment for the virus.

The consignment, which was procured from Cuba by the defence force earlier this year, could cost taxpayers more than R180m in fruitless and wasteful expenditure.

The Sunday Times has established that the South African Military Health Services (SAMHS) has already obtained 130,000 doses of interferon, a drug which was in March rejected by health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize for treatment of Covid-19 patients.

Documents seen by the Sunday Times have revealed that the payments to procure the drug were allegedly justified in the defence finance system as “vocational training services”.

A letter by one of the senior generals in the army raised a red flag about the procurement after the SANDF’s COO rejected the payment of invoices for consignments amounting to more than 700,000 doses meant to treat about 400,000 Covid-19 infected patients.

In the letter written to the SANDF, senior officers, including the chief of the army Gen Solly Shoke, are asked to investigate how the defence force procured the drug, as there was no government invoice.

“The second and third consignment delivered 709,594 dosages extrapolating to 473,000, which must be used within two years to avoid disposal due to expiry,” reads a document directed to the senior officials of the SANDF.

“At no stage was any SAMHS [projections] of Covid-19 [as great as] this number of patients. Therefore, the basis of the calculation of this already seemingly controversial transaction may have not been conducted with reasonable care.

“In the event that the unused interferon must be exposed of upon expiry commencing on April 2022, it will result in fruitless and wasteful expenditure.” 

In March, the health department issued a brief report on interferon in relation to Covid-19, in summary stating that there was no evidence to support inclusion of the drug in treatment guidelines for Covid-19 in SA until further evaluations were conducted or reported.

It is unclear at this stage if such trials have been accepted, as the Sunday Times awaits comment from the department and the army. This story will be updated if comment arrives.

There is no evidence that interferon, or any other drug, work to treat Covid-19. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) there is no vaccine and no specific antiviral medicine to prevent or treat Covid-19.

According to Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, in South Africa, all drugs must be approved for use in the country by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA). This also applies during a state of disaster. If a medication is not approved by SAHPRA, that decision is final and not even the health minister can override it.