The health department has been accused of lying to parliament about the procurement of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine currently being administrated nationwide.
Leading the charge in parliament’s health portfolio committee on Friday was EFF MP Naledi Chirwa, who told deputy health minister Dr Joe Phaahla, along with his director-general Dr Sandile Buthelezi, that they had deliberately misled parliament on a number of issues pertaining to the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines.
“What do we do with an executive that lies to the portfolio committee? You lie in the news, you lie in your statements. You are liars. What must we do with the fact that you keep coming to the portfolio committee with lies? You lie about important issues,” said an angry Chirwa.
She was speaking during a question-and-answer session in the portfolio committee during which Phaahla had earlier revealed that the J&J vaccine currently being administered was not formally approved by the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra).
Phaahla, who was accompanied by Buthelezi and other health officials to update parliament on the vaccine rollout, also revealed the vaccines being used in the current rollout programme were part of a batch J&J was using to conduct their worldwide human “expanded study”.
“It is legally regarded as an expanded study because as we are rolling out, the vaccine is not registered. The documentation for the application for registration of the vaccine has been submitted to Sahpra and documentation has also been submitted to other authorities,” Phaahla said.
After the department’s presentation, MPs were left confused as to whether SA was currently rolling out a procedurally-procured J&J vaccine or whether health-care workers were part of a human trial on the J&J vaccine.
“Today you are coming here to manage the situation because you have been caught in a web of lies and citing non-disclosure agreements as the reason for creating immunity for your own lies. These are lies. These are fake news. It is absolutely unacceptable …” said Chirwa.
The ANC’s Dr Kenny Jacobs raised a point of order, asking committee chairperson Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo to ask Chirwa to withdraw the word “lie” — which she later did.
Phaahla then told Chirwa: “You cannot just accuse the member of lying and get away with it. I want the committee, through you chair [the ANC’s Sibongiseni Dhlomo], to take this matter up with the presiding officers because this member carries on with the accusations.”
NFP MP Ahmed Shaik Emam agreed with Chirwa. “What the national department of health and Sahpra have done is unethical.”
“Normally in a trial, you would call people to participate in a trial, you will get their consent for them to participate in a trial and, in this instance, you have failed to do that,” he said, adding that the department had misled the nation.
However, Jacobs defended the department and said this was not true.
“We have had many presentations on the past year on the same topic by the minister, by the department and by Sahpra. This ignorance portrayed here is then going to be put out there into the public as being the truth and it isn’t,” Jacobs said.
The DA’s Siviwe Gwarube said there was obviously great confusion between the differentiation of the trial, the actual vaccine rollout, and the various phases of that rollout.
“I think perhaps instead of throwing jabs at each other, as members I think it is an opportunity for the department to clarify because if members of the committee themselves are slightly confused about which is which, whether or not this is the first phase of the rollout in its entirety or a trial. And, if it is so, then are health-care workers very much aware of this and what would be made of the second and the third phase of the rollout?”
ACDP MP Marie Sukers said the interchanging of the words “vaccine rollout” and a “vaccine trial” had caused confusion among health-care workers.
“We cannot ignore the lack of clarity that in the beginning of administering the J&J vaccine to health-care workers, I received messages in which health-care workers were themselves uncertain as to whether they are part of a vaccine rollout or a vaccine trial. So this needs to be addressed,” said Sukers.
Dhlomo suggested that co-principal investigator of the J&J vaccine, Prof Glenda Grey, appear before parliament to explain exactly what has transpired.
Responding, Phaahla explained the country’s original plan was that by this time SA would be rolling out vaccines which were properly procured, ordered and delivered.
He said the government opted for the J&J vaccine because it was found to be more effective against the new variant discovered in SA.
“The only option which was open to us was to make sure that South Africans who are priority, in terms of our own plans, the only way those front-line workers can get protection from a vaccine proven to be effective, is through the expansion, of what has already been approved by Sahpra,” he said.
Phaahla explained that for J&J and AstraZeneca to conduct human trials in SA, they needed to apply to Sahpra.
“So they have got the approval already. So J&J, similarly to AstraZeneca, had already been approved for the human trials … So this is the avenue we have available and all that needs to be done is to approach Sahpra and ask them to approve that we expand what you have already approved.
“Now the only way we can expand that protection is to expand in the form of what you have already approved, which is the research or the study.”
He said the government had been open and transparent about the process.
“I am not blaming members for the confusion because we took a very unusual direction in order to make sure that the product which has been proven to be safe and effective in our own country. In terms of the challenge we are having, we can use that benefit to expand the protection to our front-line health-care workers …”
Phaahla added: “When J&J looks back at their books, they will be able to quote a figure of more than half a million in terms of its own human trial.”
He said the country was now moving towards procuring vaccines as a result of final approval by various authorities.
“I disagree with those who think there has been any unethical behaviour. The SA Medical Research Council is fully responsible, as a department of health we are just beneficiary partners in terms of the agreement that we have reached with J&J.
“I am confident that we will not be found to have violated any law or ethical conducted,” said Phaahla.