The purchase of the unregistered COVID-19 preventative drug Heberon from Cuba to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) was, according to a Ministerial Task Team (MTT) report, “supposedly conducted” under an existing bilateral agreement between Cuba and South Africa.
The MTT report was asked for by Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow defence and military veterans minister Kobus Marais using a PAIA (Promotion of Access to Information Act) request. He resorted to this when the MTT report was not made available to Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD). The initial request expired – the Act gives a 30 day period for requests to be executed – and Marais submitted a second with a deadline of 15 April. The report was received by him on 19 April and he bears no ill-will as the deadline day was part of the Easter long weekend.
“Along with other committee members, I received the MTT report on Tuesday (19 April) night which I see as a victory for accountability and transparency,” he told defenceWeb.
The MTT report, compiled by chair Zolile Ngcakani, Billy Masetlha and Dr Cassius Lubisi with the assistance of a three-person secretariat, took an inquisitorial approach rather than an adversarial one to meet its terms of reference. This, the report has it, was part of an expectation “to establish the veracity of fraud and corruption allegations in the procurement and maintenance programmes at the SA Army (SA Army), the SA Air Force (SAAF), Department of Defence (DoD) Logistics Division, the SA Military Health Service (SAMHS), DoD Human Resources Division (HR) and the Joint Operations Division (JOps Div) as well as the veracity of allegations of assassinations and death threats against members of the DoD and any other related allegations”.
The three-man MTT report is, again according to it, “a sub-report of the MTT’s broad report to be submitted at a future date” with the report now in the public domain only about allegations of irregular processes regarding procurement of Interferon Alpha 2B from Cuba.
These apparently self-imposed limitations do not prevent the MTT from observing in the report, dated 25 October 2021, “what stares the DoD in the face”.
It reads, again in part: “Based on findings it is common cause two issues remain outstanding in the Interferon saga”. They are payment for the second and third Interferon consignments “under dispute by the DoD” and SA Health Products Regulatory Agency (SAHPRA) approval of the drug.
“It is also common cause that three batches of the medication will expire in March, April and July 2022, respectively. The prognosis is that even if SAHPRA were to approve use of Interferon in a trial for 8 000 people from 1 November 2021 (which frankly is unlikely), given there are now effectively five months left before expiry of the first batches, expiry of some Interferon is no longer preventable if the SANDF decides not to accede to Cuba’s request to take back 500 000 vials”.
The report sets out best case and doomsday scenarios, again bearing in mind when it was written and the expiry dates.
“The best case scenario is that SAHPRA would have approved bulk use of the medication after the trial to enable the SANDF to use all 131 101 vials of the third consignment long before the expiry date of July 2022.
“There is, however, a doomsday scenario in which all remaining 970 682 vials delivered to SAMHS would expire at the end of July 2022 without being used. This scenario will mean a R15 045 772.50 material loss (fruitless and wasteful expenditure) for the DoD.”
As far as the involvement of military personnel in the apparently unlawful Heberon acquisition are concerned, the MTT states it “has not established whether or not there was any malice on the part of any official in this whole Interferon saga. It appears leadership of the SANDF, notably the Military Command Council (MCC), in the wake of an unknown enemy was justifiably concerned with force protection and had no precedent in living memory on how best to do this.
“In the process of charting a path never walked before, the Military Command and in particular the Surgeon General, who was the main advisor on Interferon, sought advice from medicos outside the SANDF and among its own reserve forces, hence the inclusion of experts such as Dr Letlape, Dr Mpe, and others in consultations with, in particular, the Cubans and the Chinese.
“Evidence from various witnesses suggests the DoH (national Department of Health) had been invited to consultations on Interferon, but showed no interest and failed to attend any consultations they were invited to.
“The MTT recommends where officers at various levels of the command structures are, by omission or commission, suspected of having violated the PFMA (Public Finance Management Act) and the Medicines and Related Substances Act such officers should be asked to account for their actions.
“In this regard, an adversarial process through relevant Boards of Inquiry could be a consideration,” according to “The South African Biography of Heberon Alfa R (Human Recombinant Alpha 2B Interferon)” sub-titled “Ministerial Task Team on allegations of fraud, corruption and misuse of State funds made against the DoD”.