Heberon drugs returned to Cuba as Portfolio Committee reveals incompetence and waste

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Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) has revealed that more than 500 000 vials of the drug known as Heberon, or Interferon Alpha 2b, that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) ordered from Cuba in 2020, have been returned. It also exposed a host of irregularities and ineptitude on the part of the SA Military Health Service.

The Committee was informed of this on Wednesday in its first sitting of 2022, when it heard a presentation from a Ministerial Task Team (MTT) appointed by former defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to establish circumstances around the acquisition of the Cuban medication.

Current defence minister Thandi Modise is apparently the only person with the prerogative to release the report but she was unable to attend the PCDMV meeting as she is off sick until month-end.

At least one person, Kobus Marais, Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow minister for Modise’s portfolio, indicated he would use the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) to ensure the MTT report becomes a public document.

Mapisa-Nqakula appointed the MTT after Major General Lesley Ford, Chief Director for Military Health Service Support, accused the military of irregularities in procuring the Interferon. In its report, the MTT said in February 2020, the South African Military Health Service (SAMHS) Surgeon General, Lieutenant General Zola Dabula, was visiting Cuba where he became convinced of the efficacy of Interferon 2b as a possible immune booster for soldiers suffering from Covid-19.

A series of meetings between Cuba and the SANDF followed in which former Chief SANDF, General Solly Shoke, claimed members of the Health Department were invited but did not attend. The SANDF’s Military Command Council (MCC) decided to use all available means to protect its members, with Dabula strongly recommending the use of Interferon to the MCC.

CEO of SAHPRA, Dr Boitumelo Semete-Makokotlela, stressed that no state entity, including the SANDF, was exempt from the relevant Act and therefore needed to get permission to use Interferon for Covid-19 from SAHPRA.

During the hearings, SAHPRA Board Chairperson Professor Helen Rees pointed out that during the beginning of the pandemic: “Interferon was one of the many drugs that we really hoped would make a difference to covid, either in prevention or in treatment. Subsequently, there were some trials done and unfortunately, Interferon hasn’t been shown to be effective either in prevention or for treatment.” She added: “At the time of these negotiations, there was hope” that Interferon would be effective.

The SANDF requested Interferon to treat 100 000 people, which amounted to some 1.2 million vials. Several consignments containing 970 000 vials were subsequently delivered, at a cost of more than R200 million.

It was alleged that large quantities of the vials were compromised after being improperly stored, but the MTT found that the processes followed in the delivery and storage of the drug were found to be largely correct. A SAHPRA test of 54 vials of Interferon found that no damage had been done in transportation and claims of problems at military refrigeration installations were unsubstantiated.

Regarding the procurement of the drug, numerous irregularities were found. SAHPRA had not approved it when the SANDF imported it and there was no clear ownership of responsibility in the SANDF chain of command, the MTT found. When Shoke signed and ordered the consignments, these were done under Operation Thusano and not, as they should have been, under Operation Notlela as Thusano covers SA-Cuba military cooperation and Notlela covered the military response to the pandemic.

South Africa has a list of ports of entry that may be used when importing medicines, but Air Force Base Waterkloof, where the Interferon was delivered, is not one of them. To this, the Chief of the SANDF replied that at the time there was a lockdown and none of the normal ports of entry were available. However, whether emergency medications could be brought in or not has not been investigated.

The Auditor General, Lourens van Vuuren, flagged the SANDF’s expenditure. In addition to the irregularities relating to Interferon, including use of an open-ended contract, he found that procurement under Operation Thusano was in violation of the Constitution. Therefore, “all procurements under Operation Thusano should be regarded as irregular expenditure.” By 31 March 2021, Thusano expenditure had surpassed R1 billion, and included the R200 million for Heberon.

SAHPRA initially considered a clinical trial application of Heberon for 8 000 SANDF members, but later withdrew this offer and threatened to destroy the medication if it is not returned to Cuba.

Semete-Makokotlela confirmed that she had received a letter from the Department of Defence a day before the briefing on Wednesday, confirming that the Heberon had been sent back to Cuba after Cuba requested 500 000 vials be returned before they expired. (Expiry dates are March, April and July this year.) Cuba promised to replace the 500 000 vials should the regulatory issues dogging Heberon be resolved.

Although the exact number of Heberon vials returned is not yet clear, the MTT concluded that the SANDF wasted a large amount of money without adequate reason or explanation. It suggested the minister order a board of inquiry to investigate the causes of this wastage.

Cuba sent three invoices amounting to $15 million to the SANDF for the Heberon, but only one, for $2 million (R33 million), has been paid to date.



PCDMV co-chair Cyril Xaba is quoted in a Parliamentary Communication Services statement issued after the meeting on Wednesday, as saying the committee “agreed to defer full discussion on the matter (Heberon acquisition) until the Minister is able to attend and gives permission for the report to be shared”.