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Dodgy Cuban Covid-19 drug deal adds to Ramaphosa's corruption headache

Next up, the departments implicated in the preliminary report must respond

15 November 2020 - 17:20 By tanya farber
A report by the auditor-general says a deal worth over R200m was struck for an unauthorised Covid-19 drug from Cuba.
A report by the auditor-general says a deal worth over R200m was struck for an unauthorised Covid-19 drug from Cuba.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has been vocal on clamping down on Covid-19 related corruption, now has another serving — a massive medicine purchase from Cuba — added to his plate.

The presidency has said, however, that due process must be followed before it can comment on a damning preliminary report by the auditor-general, and whether it will take a tough stance on those implicated in it.

According to the report, the SA National Defence Force blew more than R200m on an unregistered Covid-19 drug from Cuba that had not been given the green light by the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority.

Speaking to TimesLIVE on Sunday, Tyrone Seale, acting spokesperson in the presidency, said that at this stage the presidency could not comment.

“The report in question is a preliminary report and the departments in question will therefore have an opportunity to respond to the auditor-general.”

The report says that the drug was smuggled into the country without a proper procurement process in place, that it was kept at the incorrect temperatures anyway, and that more than 900,000 vials bought with taxpayers’ money now sit in storage and cannot be used.

The report also says that the defence force concealed the deal and that there is no clarity on who ordered it.

In the meantime, SA is continuing with its trials to assist other global players in trying to pin down Covid-19 treatments that are safe and effective.

Prof Shabir Madhi, a vaccinologist at Wits University who is heading up the trials, told TimesLIVE: “With our University of Oxford trial, enrolment was completed and we are now following up with participants to see who got infected. When we have 52, we can do an analysis. We are nowhere near there as the first wave has subsided, so we will only reach targets when there’s a resurgence.”

Then there’s the Novavax trial.

Madhi says that they’re still enrolling participants and hope to be complete with that by month end.

Finally, there is the Johnson & Johnson trial, which started last Friday.

Trialling any other drug that has not gone through the correct phases of a clinical trial is dangerous, and the import of such drugs is “illegal”, said Madhi.

He said that “importing medicines into the country, whether for clinical trials or treatment, without the required permission ... is against the law”.