SANDF refutes claims it inadvertently destroyed Cuban COVID-19 drug


The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has refuted reports that it inadvertently destroyed COVID-19 medication from Cuba by leaving fridge doors open, but has not denied that 40% of the drug shipment suffered temperature fluctuations that could compromise its effectiveness.

In a statement on 23 January, Siphiwe Dlamini, Head of Communication of the Department of Defence, said “Having inspected the storage facilities the evening of Saturday 23 January 2021 and the security thereof, the SANDF can state without fear of contradiction and prejudice that there is no speck of truth in this report.”

He was referring to reports on Netwerk24/Rapport claiming “the SANDF has inadvertently destroyed” medicine from Cuba by “leaving the doors of the refrigerator open” where the medicine is stored.

Last year the SANDF was invoiced R260 million importing an apparently unregistered COVID-19 drug by the medical arm of the SA National Defence Force. The drug in question is Hebron Alpha R2B, also known as Interferon. By September, R34 million had been paid to Cuba.

“The untruth of this report is despicable to say the least and one wonders what is behind such a sensational report. This is nothing but fake news,” Dlamini said of the Netwerk24 story.

According to defence expert and Director at African Defence Review Darren Olivier, “the SANDF was able to quickly deny Netwerk24’s report…because Netwerk24 cynically recycled and rehyped old news, reusing the Auditor General’s COVID-19 report from 9 December but getting the details wrong: The AG did not claim that a warehouse door was left open.”

The Auditor General’s report on the financial management of government’s COVID-19 initiatives from December covers the Interferon saga as follows: “The department [of Defence] did not monitor and evaluate the transportation of the shipments according to Sahpra’s [South African Health Products Regulatory Authority’s] post-importation guidelines despite an internationally recognised temperature monitoring device being attached to batches of the medication shipped from Cuba to South Africa. The department also did not submit stability data on the integrity of the product to Sahpra, as required by the post-importation guidelines.

“As a result, approximately 387 000 (39.8%) of the 970 895 vials were exposed to temperatures outside of the required range (temperature as well as duration) during transportation and/or warehousing. The department did not detect and investigate this breach in the cold chain to determine the effect on the drug’s integrity and whether the shipment should have been accepted where the cold chain was compromised before the department received the Heberon.

“The audit revealed that, where breaches occurred, the drugs were, in most instances, exposed to temperatures above 8°C for more than 20 hours. Device measurements showed that some vials were exposed for up to 94 hours and 23 minutes.”

Olivier emphasised that the Auditor General’s team found that the temperature limits on the Heberon had been exceeded at some point before being inspected, either during transportation or storage, but that the SANDF didn’t keep proper records on the shipment or do a post-shipment evaluation, to know when.

“None of the regular SANDF or SAHPRA procedures were followed. The medication wasn’t assigned inventory numbers, it wasn’t tracked, the SANDF could not provide invoices, airway bills, manifests, etc., and it was misclassified on the financial system. Dodgy from start to finish,” Olivier stated.

“This has been disappointing from both the DoD/SANDF and Rapport/Netwerk24. The former for the acquisition in the first place and the spokesperson’s lie through omission, the latter for a sensationalist yet weak story that doesn’t take us any closer to the truth,” Olivier concluded.

The Auditor General noted that an external task team has been appointed to investigate, among other matters, the findings included in its report to ensure that any wrongdoing uncovered, whether of a criminal or disciplinary nature, would be addressed. According to the draft terms of reference for the establishment and functioning of the task team, the investigation will run from 4 January 2021 to 6 April 2021.