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

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The South African National Defence Force says 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 the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (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: “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 hadn’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. Mnisi told members that had they been able to use their stockpile of the drug, many of their soldiers would have avoided being hospitalised. He says the one soldier whose immune system was weak, they were able to boost it with Heberon and he made a full recovery after all else had failed.

“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.

Defence Minister Nosiwe Mapisa-Nqakula seemed surprised that chemical warfare had been in the mix.

The committee will hold another meeting with all concerned as there were still a number of unanswered questions at the end. These include among others why the Defence Force has still not provided the Auditor-General with the documents she needs to conduct her investigation into the procurement of the drug.