Caswell Tlali & Kananelo Thamae
MASERU — Finance Minister Timothy Thahane has been accused of trying to influence the National Drug Service Organisation (NDSO) to award a tender to a company being investigated for producing illegal drugs.
Thahane is said to be pushing for Allowance Pharmaceutical Corporation (APC), a joint venture between the Lesotho government and the Chinese Pharmaceutical Company, despite a police investigation into its products.
Police started investigating APC after the drug samples it had sent for testing as part of the NDSO’s tender procedures were found to have prohibited substances last May.
Police spokesperson Masupha Masupha on Friday said the drug samples were sent to Pretoria laboratories to check if APC had produced illegal drugs.
But despite this investigation, Thahane is said to have continued pushing for APC to be awarded the lucrative tender.
The NDSO is a government organisation that imports and supplies medicines to all hospitals, private or state-owned.
It also regulates the pharmaceutical industry.
If APC wins the tender it will have a near-monopoly to supply drugs to Lesotho.
It’s a deal that is worth millions of maloti.
The principal secretary in the finance ministry, Mosito Khethisa, is the chairman of the APC board.
In a letter he wrote to the NDSO general manager, Matebele Sefali, Thahane said the APC must be given preference in the tender.
“It should be given preference for locally produced medicines or items related thereto,” Thahane wrote.
His reason was that APC was a joint venture between the government of Lesotho and a Chinese company.
“Subject to quality (formalities) and price being competitive and considering government’s policy to build the local pharmaceutical industry, it would be appreciated if they could be given special consideration in the evaluation for labelling in Sesotho and English which are Lesotho’s official languages.”
He said it was in “Lesotho’s interest to encourage local manufacture and packaging of medicines given the recent decision by South Africa to restrict exports of medicines to Lesotho”.
Sefali did not take kindly to Thahane’s letter and he immediately complained to the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare.
In a four-page report submitted to the principal secretary in the health ministry, ’Malerato Khoeli, Sefali accused the APC of trying to influence the tender process by using Thahane.
He said he did not understand why Thahane was writing to him directly on a matter that involved the NDSO’s operations.
“I request your guidance because APC seems to be using the honourable minister of finance for direct written communication to me,” Sefali said.
“I believe I don’t have the authority to be directly communicating with the honourable minister of finance.”
Sefali said in May last year APC submitted drug samples to qualify for supply of pharmaceuticals to the NDSO but the screening tests done by the police showed that the company could have brought banned drugs.
The police and the NDSO informed the APC management that their samples failed the tests and the police were conducting further investigations.
Sefali said during the NDSO’s own assessment “a number of inconsistencies were picked up between the information on the pre-qualification document, product list and the samples submitted for evaluation”.
“The most serious of these was the fact that the samples submitted were entirely written in Chinese,” Sefali said.
“The NDSO management indicated that only samples written in English or Sesotho will be acceptable.”
Earlier in February, Khethisa allegedly wrote to the NDSO seeking a meeting to introduce the ACP but the NDSO management refused saying health n ministry principal secretary should be invited too.
Eventually the meeting was held between APC and NDSO management only, Sefali said.
The main issue discussed in the meeting was the NDSO’s quality assurance requirements.
In April, the APC management allegedly wrote to the NDSO seeking a confirmation that it would be given “preference in the assessment” of the tender submission.
However, the NDSO refused saying APC had to submit the shareholders’ certificates of the company “so that the appropriate granting of margin of preference could be made”.
In May the APC allegedly wrote another letter requesting Khoeli to explain to the Ministry of Health that it had participated in the pharmaceutical tender and it was expected to submit samples.
“About three to four days after a letter was written, the procurement manager was called by the police regarding the letter that was written on those samples,” Sefali said.
“It was in that meeting that it came out that the screening tests for prohibited substances were made on those samples and some failed the tests,” he said.
Sefali said the police also requested NDSO’s Quality Assurance Manager to send them more APC samples for screening and “some apparently failed the tests”.
A meeting was held on May 30 last year, after Thahane’s letter, where APC allegedly said it did not have confidence on the tests and results that came out.
The NDSO was also concerned that one of the products found on APC’s consignment, Giluton 1100/37N/L-lysine Monohydrochloride, “was not on the list of products on tender and was also not a stock product for the organisation”.
“The question was, why was it consigned to NDSO?” said Khoeli’s report, adding: “APC management did not have a definite answer to the question but could only suspect that the forwarding agent made a mistake.”
In November APC’s lawyers, Du Preez, Liebetrau & Co, wrote to the police commissioner complaining that a police officer who conducted tests “never disclosed his qualifications”.
“The officer conducted “tests” by dropping unknown substances into the samples which caused the samples to discolour,” reads the lawyers’ letter.
“He was asked what that showed but he was not able to give any answer or explanation. He in fact said that certain (parts) of the discolouring proved that there were drugs in the samples.”
Masupha told the Sunday Express that the APC director John Parker is facing charges of violating customs and excise laws in that he failed to declare “certain things” when he imported drugs into the country.
Minister Thahane said Sefali’s response to his letter was “irresponsible because the NDSO works under the Ministry of Finance”.
“His predecessor used to receive letters from the Minister of Finance and I do not understand why this one is behaving so irresponsibly,” Thahane said.
Thahane has however promised the Sunday Express an interview for a detailed report on the APC saga.
Efforts to contact Parker were not successful.
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