Business Day

Puzzle over what to do with R180m drug debt to Cuba

- Bekezela Phakathi Parliament­ary Writer phakathib@businessli­ve.co.za

The government, which is still to take action against army officials who illegally imported an unproven drug from Cuba at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, is still facing a R180m bill from the island nation.

The SA National Defence Force (SANDF) faced criticism for violating acquisitio­n rules and health regulatory protocols to procure Heberon Interferon­Alpha-2B, an unregister­ed drug that is said to considerab­ly strengthen the immune system.

The medical 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, and stored in premises not licensed by the regulator.

Opposition parties want SANDF bosses and former defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to be held accountabl­e for the scandal. Mapisa-Nqakula, who was removed from her ministeria­l position in a cabinet reshuffle amid allegation­s that the security services were caught napping before and during the July unrest, has since been made National Assembly speaker.

At the time, she said she wasn’t aware of drug control regulation­s. She may have to recuse herself if the matter is brought before the National Assembly.

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.

Parliament’s defence committee was due to receive a briefing on the report on Wednesday, but representa­tives from the defence department said it would be finalised only in three weeks’ time.

Defence secretary Gladys Kudjoe told MPs the drugs cost R215m, with R35m already paid. Kudjoe said discussion­s were continuing on whether to return the medication.

Mapisa-Nqakula’s successor and former National Assembly speaker Thandi 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.

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