Minister says SANDF ‘heads will roll’ over illegal Cuban COVID drugs

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Newly appointed Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise has warned her army generals that “heads will roll” over the illegal purchase by the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) of unregistered Chinese-Cuban COVID-19 drugs, worth more than R200 million.

In her first briefing to Parliament as a Cabinet minister last Wednesday,  reports News24, Modise said it was clear all procurement processes were ignored when the deal took place.

The government, which has yet to act against army officials who illegally imported the unproven drug at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, is still facing a R180m bill from the island nation.

SANDF violated acquisition rules as well as health regulatory protocols to procure Heberon Interferon-Alpha-2B, an unregistered drug that apparently strengthens the immune system.

The drugs were imported in 2020 at the peak of the first wave of COVID-19 infections, without approval from the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA), and stored in premises not licensed by the regulator.

BusinessLive reports  that opposition parties want SANDF bosses and former defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to be held accountable for the scandal. Mapisa-Nqakula has since been made National Assembly speaker but at the time said she wasnʼt aware of drug control regulations.

In February, Maj-Gen Mzikayise Tyhalisi suggested to MPs that the leadership believed the country was facing a biological war triggered by COVID-19 and they thought the army was exempt from the normal pharmaceutical procurement rules.

In March, Mapisa-Nqakula appointed a ministerial task team to investigate, and Parliamentʼs defence committee was due to receive a briefing on the report last Wednesday, but representatives from the defence department said it would be finalised only in three weeksʼ time.

Defence secretary Gladys Kudjoe said discussions were continuing on whether to return the medication.

Modise said the efficacy of Heberon is beside the point. “The point is who authorised this [procurement] outside the health department? There is no way heads are not going to roll; we will not excuse this thing because we will be setting a bad precedent.”

Modise said whichever way the situation was looked at, there were serious procurement problems,  "Quite clearly, without even having full facts, the Auditor-General is going to have issues with this procurement. The only time the defence department does not follow the normal route of procurement is in strategic issues.

"The main question that has been, was where the decision was taken. Why was that decision taken? How was the procurement done? Who was responsible for signing off? Those, for me, are the areas the task team must answer.

“The procurement process must be followed. I can't wake up tomorrow and say I want a helicopter and it is procured. There are processes that must be respected. There is no way that heads are not going to roll. Procurement processes were rubbished,” she said.

Modise said South Africa's relationship with Cuba should not be damaged because the defence department's conduct was outside the normal processes.


BusinessLive article – Delays and head-scratching over R180m drug debt to Cuba (Restricted access)


News24 article – SANDF's Cuban Covid-19 drug deal: 'Procurement processes were rubbished', (Open access)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


SANDF Military Command refuses to co-operate with Public Protector on Cuban Interferon


SANDF applies to SAHPRA to trial illegally imported Cuban drug


Hawks and SAHPRA raid for ‘COVID cure' blocked by SANDF


AG: SANDF already paid some of R260m for Cuban COVID 'wonder cure'


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