Modise promises action over irregular procurement of anti-COVID-19 drugs worth millions

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Newly-appointed Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise has told Parliament’s Oversight Committee on Defence that heads will roll regarding the procurement of a R 215-million anti-COVID-19 drugs from Cuba last year.

She says this is because neither the procurement regulations were followed nor the approval acquired from the South African Health Regulatory Authority.

“The main question for me is, ever since I was acquainted with this matter, where was the decision taken, why was that decision taken, how was the procurement done, who was responsible for signing off? Those, for me are the areas which the task team must answer – anything else whether professor does find the drug is fine –  that is besides the issue – it is how it was procured and brought into this country.”

Meanwhile, the South African Health Products and Regulatory Authority (SAHPA) has told Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence and Military Veterans that it has not approved the Cuban anti-COVID-19 drug Heberon, which was brought into the country last year.

However, SAHPRA CEO Boitumelo Semente says South Africa has only paid R35-million, after defaulting on a R180-million balance.

SANDF believed they were exempt from normal pharmaceutical processes when procuring Heberon

In February, the South African National Defence Force said it believed it was exempt from the normal pharmaceutical procurement processes when it illegally imported the medical drug Heberon from Cuba for the treatment of COVID-19 last year.

The military top brass says they also believed that they were facing chemical and biological warfare and they needed to protect their soldiers who were deployed to enforce the state of disaster regulations. This was revealed at a briefing to Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Defence that wanted to know how the military had bypassed the laws on the procurement of the drugs.

The Defence Force has come under fire for importing Heberon in April last year, without the permission of  SAHPRA. It only applied in August to the authority for the bulk stock of the drug without saying what quantity they were applying for. For this reason, the application was rejected.

SAHPRA CEO Boitumelo Semete says, “On the 21st of October, we received build stock authorisation request again and there were still no quantities mentioned, still no further information and the application was then again rejected but with the recommendation that all relevant information be submitted. Until to date, we haven’t received any information on that. So, according to us the bulk stock request remains rejected by the authority on the basis of insufficient information being provided but also on the basis that this is a drug that has not been authorised for use for the management of COVID-19. We will only consider it for use in a clinical trial study.”

The generals say, however, that they were working in a new environment and needed to find solutions as quickly as possible. For this reason, they did what they could to help the country and the Defence Force overcome the problem. They told members that had they been able to use their stockpile of the drug, many of their soldiers would have avoided being hospitalised.

As to why they did not follow the correct procedure, the SANDF says they thought they were exempt from the normal processes. This they believed because the Military Health Services is part of the government. Major General Joseph Tyhalisi told members they sought military solutions because they thought they were dealing with a biological and chemical warfare situation.