I knew SANDF bought interferon and proposed it to command council: Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula
But defence minister says she had no idea the drug was not registered with the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority and procurement laws were sidestepped
Defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has admitted that she knew about the procurement from Cuba of the drug interferon by the SA National Defence Force (SANDF).
However, she said, she had no idea that the drug was not registered with the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) and that all procurement laws were sidestepped by SANDF in importing it into the country.
The SANDF, through the SA Military Health Services (SAMHS) and Sahpra, were appearing before the portfolio committee to account on the irregular procurement and import of the drug to the country at a cost of more than R200m.
The defence force procured the drug for its members to boost their immune systems and those of their family members against Covid-19.
The possession of the drug by the SANDF has been a thorny issue such that, at one point, Sahpra visited the warehouse where it was stored, accompanied by the Hawks. But they were met by resistance from soldiers who refused them entry and guns were drawn.
During the committee meeting on Wednesday, Sahpra and SAMHS played a cat-and-mouse blame game, and the committee chairperson Cyril Xaba called on Mapisa-Nqakula to have the intervening voice.
Mapisa-Nqakula said she had launched an independent probe to get to the bottom of the issue.
“I cannot, chair — because things have been done in the manner in which they have been done, which I do not agree with — be dishonest and distance myself, saying I did not know that there was interferon in the country,” said Mapisa-Nqakula.
“I was told that there is interferon and that it has been offered by the Cubans.”
Mapisa-Nqakula said when she became aware of interferon intended for SANDF members, she was puzzled by the “quantity”, which was well above the total number of soldiers in the country.
“They were able to provide me with an explanation, which was that you cannot administer interferon to a soldier and then not administer that to the family who reside in that household because it is an immune-boosting serum,” she said.
The minister said upon discovering the consideration of interferon by the SANDF, she had expressed a view that if the drug was a good immune-booster, then it ought to have been procured for the whole country.
“My immediate reaction was, but we cannot get medication only for the defence force, what we need. I will raise the matter at the meeting of the coronavirus command council, just to say maybe South Africa should get it for everyone.
“I tabled the matter in the meeting of the command council not once, not twice but maybe thrice, but unfortunately there was never a yay or a nay on that matter.
“At the time I said we cannot get medication for just members of the defence force, it is better for the country to be aware of the offer and if the country wants it, it is OK and if it is not wanted it is OK.”
Committee members expressed concern that only 0.001% of the consignment had been used and that in all likelihood the rest would amount to fruitless and wasteful expenditure.
Even worse, the SANDF was refusing to hand over all documents related to the interferon procurement to the office of the auditor-general, leading to uncertainty as to exactly how much was spent.