More questions remain on saga of Cuba’s Covid-19 drug Heberon, Modise says

Defence minister Thandi Modise said on Wednesday she had instructed the head of the defence force to implement the findings of the ministerial task team that probed the irregular procurement of Cuban-made drug Hebron in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic and report to her on progress made.

“We have discussed this matter with the chief of defence. I have instructed him to implement the decisions,” Modise told parliament’s portfolio committee on defence and military veterans.

She added that, although her marching orders to head of the South African National Defence Force, general Solly Shoke, were clear, she was still awaiting answers from him and others on the finer points of how the saga unfolded.

For instance, the department wanted to know whether the official in the finance department of the defence force who signed off on procuring more than R200-million worth of the booster drug, tried to protest that due process be followed “or did not have any choice but to follow the instructions” of superiors.

It was important to establish, Modise said, so as to know who could be exonerated and who not.

“We are looking at all those details and I’m hoping that finally, when the general comes back, we will have a fuller thing … Whoever else was part of this, we will follow because we do not want to see a repeat of this,” she said.

The minister said the report of the task team notably implicated the former surgeon general of defence, Zola Dabula, but that there were other names that kept coming up and other areas of concern that had been exposed. 

“Once you’ve had an investigation like that you begin to look at all the other things, whether they are strictly in this matter that you are investigating or not,” she said.

“That is why we have focused now on the procurement processes within logistics and within the uniformed branch in total and are looking to put in stronger structures there that will ensure that financial oversight is really enforced.”

Modise said the report submitted by the team — composed of former inspector general of intelligence Zolile Ngcakani, former presidency director general Cassius Lubisi and former National Intelligence Agency head Billy Masetlha — made plain that Heberon had been smuggled into the country.

“They found that the first consignment was brought in through customs —  for some reason it went through customs —  but that this consignment was brought in through a subsidiary of Armscor, AB Logistics; that the second and third consignments were never cleared,” she said.

“Now, something that has not been cleared, it simply means that that something has been smuggled in and we do take issue with that ourselves.”

The military had to be commended for trying to protect itself in a pandemic, but should have acted within the law, she added: “We want to say that even though we admire the defence for trying to do the right thing to bring in what was going to secure their troops, they went about it the wrong way.”

Modise indicated that the military had not given up on the idea of providing Heberon for its staff. The government subsequently received an offer of the same drug from China, but asked that it be put on hold to allow due process to be followed, she added.

“In my interaction with the minister of defence in China, it was to say, ‘Thank you very much, let me first clear the path for us to legally receive the donation from you. And until we clear that path, please hold onto that gift’.”

Heberon was not approved by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) when the military brought it into the country through the Waterkloof air force base in 2020. Sahpra had, by late 2020, given authorisation for restricted use, but rejected requests from the military for unlimited authorisations.

In letters to the military, it raised the need for medical trials, because the drug was not indicated for use against the coronavirus.

The auditor general found not only that the procurement of the drug was irregular and amounted to fruitless expenditure, but that this also applied to the entirety of Operation Thusane — the process through which South Africa implemented a bilateral agreement with Cuba dating back to 2012. It was not compliant with the constitution or treasury regulations.

“Operation Thusane was also dragged into this Interferon thing, so we are also looking at that,” Modise told MPs cryptically, using the military’s preferred name for Heberon.

She confirmed that South Africa planned to consent to an urgent request from Cuba for some 500 000 vials, just more than half the number brought into the country, to be sent back as a loan, given that they had shortage of the drug.

“They had approached us to borrow back because they had a need,” the minister said, adding that Cuba had asked on the understanding that it would replace the consignment with the same at a later stage, but that South Africa could not accept the return without full regulatory approval this time.

“We would then have to do the right thing, get the right clearances with Saphra, working in conjunction with the department of health, so that when the vials come back in, that which we have paid, all the processes are cleared,” Modise said.

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