South Africa


Back to Cuba: SANDF returns irregularly procured Covid drug worth R228m

Back to Cuba: SANDF returns irregularly procured Covid drug worth R228m
Members of the South African National Defence Force on patrol during a joint operation in Johannesburg with the South African Police Service on 26 April 2020, day 31 of the national Covid-19 lockdown. (Photo: EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK)

The drug was not approved by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) when the SANDF imported them without the required authorisation into SA via the Waterkloof Air Force Base.

A consignment of the controversial Cuban-manufactured Covid-19 drug Heberon Alfa R 2b (also known as interferon), meant to be used as a booster for soldiers in the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) against infection, has quietly been sent back to Cuba. 

This came to light during a briefing on Wednesday before the Portfolio Committee on Defence on the outcomes of a ministerial task team inquiry into alleged irregularities in the procurement and payment for three consignments of drugs worth R228-million.

sandf covid drug

The controversial Cuban-manufactured Covid-19 drug Heberon Alpha R 2B. (Image: Supplied)

The Heberon drugs were not approved by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) when the SANDF imported them without the required authorisation into SA via the Waterkloof Air Force Base.

The task team consisted of Zolile Ngcakani (chairperson), Billy Masetlha and Dr Cassius Lubisi.

Lubisi briefed the committee despite Defence Minister Thandi Modise not having released the full report by the task team as promised in a previous committee briefing. She is the only one who has the prerogative to release the report, her deputy, Thabang Makwetla, said. Modise could not attend the virtual meeting because she is ill and is booked off until the end of January.

During the briefing, Sahpra CEO Dr Boitumelo Semete-Makokotlela confirmed that she had received a letter from the Department of Defence a day before the briefing, confirming that the drugs had been sent back to Cuba.

No details about whether the full consignment had been returned were provided. It is also not clear how the necessary export documentation was generated for a consignment of medicines irregularly imported.

The only aircraft known to have recently departed South Africa to Havana, Cuba, was an Air Zimbabwe flight out of OR Tambo International Airport on 19 January. 

In 2020, a total of 970,695 vials of the Cuban medicine were delivered to the SA Military Health Services’ (SAMHS’) depot in three batches at a cost of $15-million.

Since then, the Auditor-General has flagged not only the irregular procurement of the drugs as fruitless expenditure, but the whole Operation Thusano. This operation involves the continued bilateral agreement and contract of cooperation between the defence department and the Cuban government, an agreement originally concluded in 2012.

In a letter to the committee before Wednesday’s meeting, the Auditor-General stated: “During the final audit, we further reported in the management report that the process followed to implement the bilateral agreement with Cuba through Operation Thusano was not compliant with Section 217 of the Constitution or with National Treasury regulations and instruction notes. 

“As a result, all expenditure incurred under Operation Thusano, which was in excess of R1-billion as at 31 March 2021, was irregular [the total expenditure includes payment for the Heberon].”

Member of the Ministerial Task Team, Cassius Lubisi. (Screenshot)

Lubisi said the military command council had approved the procurement of the drugs, arguing the SANDF had found itself in a warlike situation regarding Covid-19. The contract for the drugs was concluded as “services rendered” under Operation Thusano.

The importation was handled by the logistics support division in the SANDF, rather than the SAMHS, which is authorised to handle all military medicine orders in line with legislation.

“However, the identity of the person(s) who provided the Log Div [logistics division] with the specifications, including the quantities to be procured was intensely disputed among senior officers of the SANDF,” Lubisi found.

The controversy landed in the public domain after a leaked letter by the then chief director of military health support, Major-General Lesley Ford. 

In that letter, Ford objected to payment for the drugs as the medicine had been illegally imported and had not been approved in line with Treasury’s regulations. 

He argued that the procurement would thus reflect as fruitless expenditure on the department’s budget — which has since been validated by the full audit and qualified audit report by the Auditor-General for the irregular expenditure of R2.1-billion, including R33-million for the procurement of the drugs from Cuba without approval from Sahpra.

The task team found that the drugs were authorised in a letter signed on 8 April 2020 by the then chief of the SANDF, General Solly Shoke. 

Shoke delegated all negotiations regarding the contract to the then Surgeon-General, Lieutenant-General Zola Dabula. Both Shoke and Dabula have since retired, while Ford was on special leave until he retired late in 2021.

Major-General Noel Ndhlovu, the deputy Surgeon-General, who objected to the deal at the time, has been on special leave since 2020 and launched a court process to force the SANDF to overturn its decision.

Lubisi conceded that most of Ford’s objections against the procurement process have been substantiated by the task team. The SANDF has paid only R34-million for the first batch of the Heberon, while the Cuban authorities have been demanding payment for the rest.

The consignment has expiry dates of March, April and July 2022. Last year the Cuban embassy requested the return of at least 500,000 of the vials for use before they expired. It is not clear whether the consignment, which has now been returned to Cuba, includes only these or all three batches of the total order.

The SANDF, in the meantime, proposed to run a trial of the medicine among a test group of 8,000. However, a registered Clinical Research Organisation needs to be established before that can happen. Even if the SAMHS manages to have the trial approved, the drugs will expire before they can be used.

“This [the partial return of some vials] should be accompanied by high-level diplomatic engagement with the Cuban government to manage the serious political fallout that would result from action,” Lubisi stated.

Modise should also consider referring the findings against certain officers to the military law enforcement entities to determine whether any steps should be taken against any person or group of persons mentioned in the report, in terms of the Public Finance Management Act and the Medicines and Related Substances Act. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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