SACP defends SANDF’s controversial COVID-19 drug procurement


The South African Communist Party (SACP) has defended the SA National Defence Force’s (SANDF’s) controversial acquisition of the drug Heberon from Cuba.

In a statement on 31 January, the SACP said it “supports legitimate measures by the South African National Defence Force to ensure force protection, mitigate against military personnel being compromised in their frontline duties, and thus save life against COVID-19.”

Echoing a statement released on 28 January by the Military Command Council, the SACP said the military is the last line of defence in every country. “Capable defence forces around the world are well-known for medical research for protecting their forces, and the results of that research have been beneficial to the wider society, just as it has happened with technologies developed through military research.”

The SANDF acquired R200 million worth of interferon drug Heberon Alfa R from Cuba early last year to treat those suffering from COVID-19 despite it not having been approved for use in South Africa.

Interferons have long been used internationally to treat dengue fever, cancer and hepatitis B and C. Studies during the SARS epidemic in 2003 suggested interferons might also be useful against coronaviruses.

Cuba highlighted that China, where the coronavirus pandemic emerged last year, included interferon in its treatment guidelines for COVID-19. One of the interferons it used is produced by a joint Cuban-Chinese venture Changheber, Cuban authorities said.

Critics have accused Cuba of advocating a treatment that is unproven for COVID-19, as well as originally obscuring the fact other countries also produce interferon alpha 2b.

Interferons can cause serious side effects when administered in their usual forms – injections or infusions – some of which may mirror COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever and breathing difficulty.

A trial in China used interferon alpha to mitigate COVID-19, and while apparently successful, the results have not been formally peer-reviewed or published in reliable medical journals, Reuters reports.

Nevertheless, the SACP stated, “There is a large body of scientific evidence globally that the Cuban developed Heberon Alfa R (Interferon Alfa 2b) has been used successfully for over 30 years. It does not take rocket science, vis-à-vis the World Health Organisation, to establish that Heberon Alfa R is approved around the world for the treatment of numerous diseases, including several cancers.”

The SACP went on to say it “accepts the explanation by the SANDF that its Health Services applied to the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) for the use of Heberon Alfa R against COVID-19 to save life under Force Protection as detailed in SANDF application and statement cited above—which indicates that the approval was granted on 5 October 2020.” This approval came months after the drug arrived in South Africa.

The SACP said it “is deeply worried about the highly questionable manner in which SAHPRA handled the matter following the first case in which the Military Health Services used the medicine successfully, saving life. In short, SAHPRA embarked on a path to seek to destroy the medicine, literally.”

The organisation added that it has started engaging with its Alliance partners for SAHPRA’s conduct to be scrutinised. “South Africa should not allow politics, such as the anti-Cuban political agenda and the illegal blockade of Cuba by the United States, to stand in the way of protecting and saving life.”

The SACP makes no mention of the fact that the SANDF did not monitor and evaluate the transportation of the Heberon shipments according to SAHPRA’s post-importation guidelines, resulting in 40% of the shipments being exposed to temperatures outside of the required range during transportation and/or warehousing.

A December Auditor General report also found that 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.

According to Darren Olivier, defence expert and Director at African Defence Review, “the SACP’s intervention on this is ignorant and irresponsible, choosing to cast doubt on SAHPRA merely for the sake of defending Cuba and the SANDF’s leaders responsible for procuring the Hebron. They notably choose to ignore the Auditor General’s findings and that the SAMHS opposed the purchase.”

Olivier called on SANDF Chief Solly Shoke to resign over the irregular acquisition.