More questions than answers on Cuban COVID-19 drug


The apparent illegal importing of a Cuban drug to strengthen soldiers’ resistance to COVID-19 came – unsatisfactorily – under the Parliamentary oversight microscope on Wednesday.

The Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) heard from senior officers, including Surgeon General Lieutenant General Zola Dabula, the decision to acquire “Cuban Interferon” was based on it “to be potentially useful as it offered protection for Cuban medical personnel deployed at different hotspots globally”.

This is contained in a Department of Defence (DoD) presentation to the committee. It continues: “We felt that since we were going to be deployed in hotspots, we needed Interferon boost as the virus is known to target natural interferon (sic).”

On the urgency for the acquisition, the presentation points out “it was imperative then (in March), with borders closing and China procuring Cuban Interferon in large quantities to procure the drug before it is either not available or escalate (sic) in price due to demand”.

Concerning importing and transporting the drug the presentation has it that “the SANDF understanding at the time was that due to the State of Disaster Declaration and shared information on intention to use a number of drugs on emergency basis as lockdown was at level five, SAHPRA (SA Health Products Regulatory Authority) would clear emergency procured drugs upon application”.

In an attempt to improve the situation, the DoD presentation maintains: “It became apparent to the SANDF that the normal application processes which included Section 22 of Act 101 ought to have been fully explored irrespective of the urgent state it found itself in as many sectors were either shut or working with skeleton staff.”

In its submission to the PCDMV, SAPHRA states it received a new application for bulk stock of Heberon. “No quantities were mentioned, no further information was supplied on clinical benefit and the application was rejected.”

That was in August and on 5 October SAPHRA received a named patient authorisation request to “boost defence against COVID-19 complications”. Fifteen days later a bulk stock authorisation request for Heberon went to the medical regulatory authority. “No quantities were mentioned, no further information was supplied and the application was rejected with recommendation that all relevant details be submitted.” As of Wednesday’s PCDMV meeting SAHPRA had received “no further supporting details”.

SAHPRA and the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) met twice ahead of the portfolio committee meeting with agreement reached on four points.

These are: the SANDF, presumably in the form of the SA Military Health Service (SAMHS), will submit a clinical trial application for “the product”; once received it will be expedited by SAPHRA as with other COVID-19 clinical trial applications; a “small technical team will look at technical requirements” and a joint media statement will be issued on as a yet unspecified date.

On the way forward, the DoD presentation notes: “The SANDF intends to smoothen relations with SAHPRA through dialogue and optimise communication with NDoH (National Department of Health) at all levels in order to utilise the medication for force protection before the onset of the third wave of the pandemic so that soldiers can be healthy to support government whenever required.”

Speaking after the meeting Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow defence and military veterans minister Kobus Marais said it was unsatisfactory as regards the arrogance displayed by some senior military personnel and that the time allocated was “wholly insufficient”.

“Given that, among others, we are talking about misuse of over R260 million and giving our soldiers medication without the necessary stamp of approval the meeting was, to put it mildly, ‘unsatisfactory’,” he told defenceWeb.