Johannesburg, Feb 21 (PTI) The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) had authorised the purchase of over USD 17-million worth of a Cuban drug after believing that the country was involved in a biological war sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an official.
The South African Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Defence heard this during a presentation by Major-General Mzikayise Tyhalisi of the SANDF.
The leaders of the SANDF authorised the purchase of 260-million rand (USD 17.7-million) worth of the Heberon Interferon alfa-2b medicine from Cuba despite the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) banning it in the treatment of COVID-19.
Tyhalisi said after President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered the Army to assist in enforcing the national lockdown in April last year, the military “swung into a process of planning of the employment and protecting of these forces.” “Military in this case has the sole capability of chemical and biological warfare. We were dealing with an enemy that we didn’t know how it was going to behave.
“The Military Council (the highest strategic decision-making body of the SANDF), then took a decision that is seemed to be a biological warfare problem that we were dealing with and the South African Medical Service (SAMS) was tasked with finding a solution for it so that our soldiers on the ground were protected,” Tyhalisi said.
The SAMS found Interferon which they regarded not as a treatment but as a prophylactic biological product to deal with a biological threat to address a military problem which was being faced at that time, the officer said.
“Psychologically, the morale of the soldiers was heightened by the awareness of available protective drugs. If you need soldiers having their boots on the ground, you do not have time to have them in ICUs and in hospitals when the security of the country is at stake,” Tyhalisi said.
The Cuban Interferon was found to be potentially useful as it offered protection for Cuban medical personnel deployed at different hotspots globally, he said.
Both the SANDF and the SAHPRA dismissed media reports that there were tensions between the two organisations.
SAHPRA CEO Dr Tumi Semete said there had been cordial meetings between the regulator and the Defence Force.
Tyhalisi said that there had been agreement with the SAHPRA that the Interferon drug would only be used for clinical trials.
But leading South African virologist and COVID-19 researcher Professor Shabir Madhi from the University of the Witwatersrand told the Sunday Times that there was “no scientific rationale for doing a clinical trial of Interferon alfa-2b as it has already been shown to be ineffective in the WHO solidarity trial in the treatment of COVID-19.” PTI FH CPS