Deception from inception: DA M

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the Military Command Council (MCC) of the SANDF.

Deception from inception: DA MP wants SANDF heads to roll over dodgy R200m Covid drug debacle

SANDF has issued a statement defending its controversial acquisition from Cuba, but analysts ask: ‘Have you learnt nothing from this debacle?’

Deception from inception: DA M

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the Military Command Council (MCC) of the SANDF.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) wants the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans to appear before Parliament to “account” for the illegal procurement of Interferon Alpha-2B (marketed as Heberon) for use by South Africa’s military to fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

TSA reported in October that senior executives serving the army spent over R200 million on the ‘unproven COVID treatments’ – and hid evidence of the payments.

It’s not been established how the order was signed and executed, nor is it clear who is responsible, but DA MP Kobus Marais is demanding accountability and wants those responsible sacked.

Arrogant, ignorant, remorseless’

On Jan. 28, The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) issued a statement defending its controversial acquisition from Cuba, following renewed criticism that it could have compromised 40% of the R200 million shipment due to improper storage.

Defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula was scheduled to brief the media a day earlier “to clarify matters” but the briefing was cancelled.

The SANDF statement was subsequently issued on behalf of the Military Command following a meeting to deliberate on the matter.

Military Command is the highest decision-making body in the SANDF, headed by the Chief of the SANDF General Solly Shoke and consisting of the heads of the Air Force, Army, Navy, Military Health Service, Joint Operations, and Defence Intelligence.

“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 statement read.

The SANDF said it had “embarked on extensive consultations” with fraternal militaries including exchanges with Beijing and Havana to see what was available to mitigate against soldiers being compromised in their frontline duties.

“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.”

Marais promptly rejected the “arrogance” of the SANDF Military Command statement, which he said, implies that they are “above any oversight and that their authority on the illegal procurement of Interferon Alpha-2B to fight against the coronavirus pandemic reigns supreme.”

“The statement is an arrogant, ignorant, remorseless, and tone-deaf response that proves the SANDF’s top brass have learnt nothing from this debacle.”

Darren Olivier, defence expert and Director at African Defence Review.

He added that the claim that the drug is beneficial “is false, [as] there are no peer-reviewed studies showing any beneficial effect of Heberon in treating COVID-19, and that no country has adopted it for large-scale use for that purpose,” reported.

In fact, says Marais, “the MCC and Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, should urgently appear before the Parliamentary defense committee to give account for this fraudulent statement and millions wasted on this procurement.”

Number of inaccuracies

“Not only does the statement contain a number of inaccuracies, the wording of the statement indicates that the MCC is trying to trick South Africa into thinking that the procurement of the drug was at the behest of the South African Military Health Services (SAMHS) and that SAMHS’ authority weights more than that of the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) who has not registered or regulated Interferon Alpha-2B for use in South Africa,” the DA MP explained.

“SAMHS has made it very clear in the past that not only did it not request the procurement of the Interferon Alpha-2B, it also never sanctioned the procurement and would not have done so had the possibility of procurement been raised with it. Why? Because SAHPRA has not regulated its use in the country.”

Even by its own admission, SAMHS is still subject to SAHPRA regulation, added Marais.

No accountability

The DA MP said it seems clear that the procurement was “deliberately done in a crooked manner” and that the MCC is trying to “squeeze themselves out of the tight spot” it created.

“It has also been clear for months that neither the SANDF top brass nor the Minister would take any accountability for the millions in taxpayers’ stolen and wasted on importing a useless drug under the guise of protecting soldiers against Covid-19.”

Fire them now, Mr President

Marais then pointed out that even if Interferon Alpha-2B (Heberon) should prove to be an effective measure against Covid-19 – something that despite the MC’s ludicrous claims has not been proven in peer-reviewed scientific studies – the SANDF had already ruined nearly 40% of the stock due to “sheer incompetence in ensuring that the drugs’ cold-chain supply was adequately managed.”

He says the MCC has “stumbled from one bungling to another.”

“And these are the people in charge of South Africa’s security. A frightening thought indeed.”

As Commander-in-Chief, President Cyril Ramaphosa, can surely see that there can be no other cause of action, he said.

“Minister Mapisa-Nqakula, SANDF Chief General Solly Shoke and the MC must be fired. Not only are they incompetent, they have also been caught in a multitude of lies just over the past year and have not been held accountable for a single one.”

Defenceweb further reported that the Auditor-General also found that none of the regular SANDF or SAHPRA procedures were followed.

The medication, reportedly, wasn’t assigned inventory numbers, it wasn’t tracked, the SANDF could not provide invoices, airway bills, manifests, etc., and it was misclassified on the financial system.

Olivier believes the “misrepresentation of the facts” by the SANDF “is completely unacceptable” and has called for the resignations of the SANDF Chief and any others involved.

“It cannot be acceptable for the SANDF to reject the findings of the Attorney-General in this way,” he stated.