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Covid-19: Auditor-general looks into SANDF's 'dodgy' Cuban drug deal

15 November 2020 - 00:04 By Sabelo Skiti
Heberon Interferon-Alpha-2B was touted by Cuba this year as a wonder treatment for the coronavirus.
Heberon Interferon-Alpha-2B was touted by Cuba this year as a wonder treatment for the coronavirus.
Image: Piyamas Dulmunsumphun/123RF

The auditor-general is investigating how the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) imported a dubious and unregistered Covid-19 drug, at a cost of more than R200m, despite a warning against its use by a top government advisory committee.

So far, only one patient is known to have been treated with 10 vials of the drug - Heberon Interferon-Alpha-2B - leaving the military health service with more than 900,000 vials of a drug it cannot use.

According to a preliminary audit report issued last week by the AG to the SANDF and the department of defence for comment, military officials effectively broke just about every law governing the importation and registration of medicines in SA, and effectively smuggled the illegitimate drugs into the country from Cuba.

The defence force went to extreme lengths to conceal the deal, doctoring customs documentation and using a payment code for training to mask that it was paying for the medication.

So far the South African taxpayer has paid a little more than R31.1m for 130,200 vials delivered in April, and the Cubans are demanding more than R186.8m for 840,695 more vials delivered in July.

It's not clear who in the military ordered the drug. The AG could not find evidence of any procurement process.

The seller is TecnoImport, a Cuban state-owned company that imports and exports technical products for Cuba's ministry of the interior and ministry of the revolutionary armed forces. The company has had controversial dealings in the past with SANDF chief Gen Solly Shoke.

The Sunday Times understands that neither the defence force nor the department has investigated the matter.

"Basically they wanted to test the drug, with or without consent, on military patients in order to act as guinea pigs for the Cubans who were trying to convince the world that their drug was working against Covid," said a government source with direct knowledge of the deal.

Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at Wits University, described the defence force's actions as "illegal".

"Importing medicines into the country, whether for clinical trials or treatment, without the required permission… is against the law. So, it's either the defence force is ignorant of the law or they are oblivious of it.

"There is no scientific rationale for doing a clinical trial of IFN-2b as it has already been shown to be ineffective in the [World Health Organisation] solidarity trial in the treatment of Covid-19."

Heberon Interferon-Alpha-2B was touted by Cuba this year as a wonder treatment for the coronavirus. It is administered intranasally over a 10-day period to patients in intensive care.

Last month the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) rejected a bulk stock application to use the drug to treat soldiers infected with Covid-19. The application was made six months after the drug was smuggled into SA without the necessary import permissions in place.

Sahpra spokesperson Yuven Gounden confirmed the rejection, saying it was done through section 21 of the Medicines and Controlled Substances Act.

According to the AG's report, the military's health service received approval from Sahpra last month to treat one Covid-19 patient - believed to be a senior army official - with 10 vials of the drug.

Other issues raised in the report include:

• That though other drugs containing interferon - a group of proteins produced by the body to fight off viral infections - are registered for use in SA, Interferon-Alpha-2B is not registered for any use;

• There are no documents to show any pre-planning or a procurement process; and

• The department is more than two months late on payments for the second and third shipments and in terms of the contract is incurring daily penalties of 0.05% of the total outstanding amount.

The first shipment arrived in SA on SAA flight SA2214, under the cover of a mercy flight that carried 187 Cuban doctors who arrived on April 26 to assist SA in managing out-of-control Covid-19 hospitalisations.

Last month a senior official in the South African Military Health Service, Gen Lesley Ford, blew the whistle on the fact that the military had imported 970,895 vials of the drug between April and July at a total cost of $1m, and was only now applying for the drug to be registered for use in SA.

Last year the AG's office also flagged another contract involving TecnoImport, this time a five-year deal that was entered into in 2014 for 150 Cuban mechanics to repair old army trucks.

The contract, which escalated from less than R200m to over R900m in 2019, was flagged as irregular after it emerged Shoke signed the contract without permission from the secretary of defence or defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

The office of the AG has, at the request of President Cyril Ramaphosa, been doing an audit of some of the R147.4bn Covid-19 expenditure by the government.

The irregular importation of the drug is in contravention of the general regulations to the Medicines and Controlled Substances Act. The SANDF also did not perform critical post-importation testing, or apply for exemption from this legal requirement.

As a result, it missed the requirement that 375,000 vials, valued at R90.9m, were stored outside of the 2ºC-8ºC window required to maintain the drug's integrity during transportation, for between one to three days.

Neither the defence force nor the defence department responded to queries sent to them on Tuesday.


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