The elite Hawks and the medical regulator SAHPRA were sent packing after an armed stand-off with the SA National Defence Force police during a raid to confiscate a Cuban-origin "cure" for COVID-19, stored at the South African Health Service depot in Pretoria, writes MedicalBrief. Confusion reigns over claims by the SANDF that SAHPRA, contrary to earlier denials, had approved use of the drugs.
The Sunday Times writes that Hawks officers were made to leave after a tense stand-off between the two armed groups on Friday, with one source claiming things got so heated that guns were drawn. The police's elite crime-fighting unit was accompanying the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA), which was there to confiscate drugs smuggled into South Africa by the Defence Force last year under cover of a mercy flight.
“It was really tense and a minister had to be called before the Hawks stood down and left,” an unnamed source is quoted as saying. No drugs were confiscated. Late last year the Sunday Times reported that the drug, Heberon Interferon-Alpha-2B, had been purchased by the SANDF for R200m without any processes being followed. The drug was touted by Cuba as a wonder treatment for COVID-19. At the time the military smuggled the drug into South Africa it was not registered for use in the country.
The SANDF applied for permission to use the drug to treat soldiers months later, and this was denied by SAHPRA. An investigation into the procurement process by the Auditor-General found that military officials effectively broke just about every law governing the importation and registration of medicines in South Africa. The probe also found that military officials used an SAA flight carrying Cuban doctors to help fight the coronavirus as cover to smuggle the illegitimate drugs into the country. To date no-one has been held accountable for the importing of the drug.
At some stage guns were drawn outside the gate to the base in Pretoria, according to one source quoted by the Sunday Times, but this could not be independently corroborated. Both SAHPRA CEO Boitumelo Semete-Makokotlela and Police Minister Bheki Cele's spokesperson Lirandzu Themba confirmed that an “incident” took place on Friday.
Daryl Glaser, an associate professor of politics at Wits University, said though it is still not clear whether the Hawks had the correct documentation, it should be concerning that armed authorities would refuse to subordinate themselves to law enforcement and get involved in stand-offs. “What you are describing sounds like the military looking after its own self-interest in terms of defending itself against allegations of impropriety … We rely on the military to be cohesive and to serve the civilian democracy.”
The SANDF is also apparently attempting to thwart a high-level investigation by Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula by claiming not to be subject to ordinary medicine regulation, Rapport reports. Mapisa-Nqakula was set to announce the names of three experts serving on the investigation panel on Wednesday of last week, but the announcement was cancelled less than an hour before it was scheduled.
The following day, the SANDF’s top brass issued a statement saying the Surgeon-General “is the only authority for the medical protection of the SANDF” and that the SANDF was not subject to the civilian regulation of medicines. The stand-off happened less than a week after it emerged that some 40% of the medicines stored in Pretoria were not stored at the correct temperatures and were wasted.
Defence Ministry spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini said a week ago that the experts earmarked to serve on an investigation panel have accepted their appointments and the announcement was due to have been made last week. On Saturday, he said the process was not finalised.
Statement by the Military Command of the South African National Defence Force on the issue regarding the application of the use of Interferon drug for members of the Defence Force:
The Military Command (MC) the highest strategic decision making body of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) held its meeting today to deliberate on the matter concerning the registration and use of the Interferon B drug for the military community. Interferon B is a drug that has been manufactured in Cuba and has been safely used world-wide for over 30 years.
Over the last four months a lot has been reported and written about the Interferon alfa-2b or the Heberon alfa R, since the South African National Defence Force acquired the medication from Cuba on emergency basis following the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020. There has since been a great interest in the drug and its efficacy as an immune-modulator in mitigation of COVID-19 complications including death and need for hospitalisation.
The SANDF embarked on extensive and intensive consultations with fraternal Militaries that we have bilateral and cooperation agreements. Militaries such as the Chinese, Cuban and other partners were approached. As such discussions were held as to what was available to mitigate against soldiers being compromised in their frontline duties as required. Objective data shows that more than 8,000 subjects in Cuba, Pakistan, Iran, Ukraine, Brazil and others have safely benefited from Heberon use. Furthermore, other western countries followed suit.
It should be placed on record that the SANDF communicated with the Cuban military and in these exploratory talks. It was revealed that the use of Interferon alfa-2b as an immune-modulator in the management of COVID-19 was beneficial to patients who had tested positive and those who have been in close contact with a positive person. In fact, evidence is mounting that countries that use Heberon have lower mortality rates due to COVID-19.
The drug was not procured for wholesale and distribution but for the sole use by members of the SANDF who were employed to assist the country in managing the pandemic. It should be mentioned that Interferon is not a vaccine and does not treat COVID-19 pneumonia among hospitalised patients, but it confers heightened protection against COVID-19 as the SARS-2 Corona Virus is known to attack natural interferons of the victim.
This pro-active approach by the SANDF was informed by the generally accepted understanding, that the military is the last line of defence in all countries. Defence forces around the world are well known for their medical research for protecting their own forces and results of that research has had beneficial impact on the wider society just like other technologies that have been developed by the military. The SANDF is no exception.
The South African Military Health Services duly applied for Section 21 for the use of the drug to SAHPRA and got approval on the 5th of October 2020 for the purposed use detailed in that application.
As the Military Command, we want to put it on record that the Surgeon-General is the only authority for medical force protection in the SANDF during war time and peace time. The health and lives of our soldiers is of paramount importance.
Issued by: Defence Corporate Communication on behalf of the Military Command
In an earlier report, the SANDF said the medicine was procured for the sole use by members employed to assist in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. “It should be mentioned that interferon is not a vaccine and does not treat COVID-19 pneumonia among hospitalised patients, but it confers heightened protection against COVID-19 … to attack natural interferons of the victim,' the SANDF said in a statement, according to TimesLIVE.
The SANDF said the SA Military Health Services had applied for the use of the drug to the SAHPRA and obtained approval on 5 October last year for the use detailed in that application. The application was done in terms of section 21 of the Medicines and Related Substances Act, which mandates SAHPRA to authorise the use of unregistered medicines in South Africa for certain purposes.
Auditor-General Tsakani Maluleke said her office picked up that nearly R35m of R260m had already been paid for the drugs. Payments to procure the drug were allegedly justified in the defence finance system as “vocational training services”.
Full Sunday Times report (Access restricted)
Full report in Rapport (Access restricted)
Full TimesLIVE report (Open access)
See also MedicalBrief archives:AG: SANDF already paid some of R260m for Cuban COVID ‘wonder cure’