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South Africans took wrong Covid vaccine? No, nasal spray drug to ‘mitigate’ disease returned to Cuba

IN SHORT: A tweet claiming that South Africans were given the “wrong Covid vaccine” is incorrect. A batch of an unauthorised nasal spray to help treat Covid symptoms was ordered by the defence department, but returned to Cuba after the public protector stepped in.

South Africans Took The Wrong Vaccine,” claims a tweet posted in November 2022. It quotes the headline of an article on the Opera News website, which in turn quotes health minister Joe Phaahla.

Tactical authorities were found to have acquired the Cuban medication Heberon Alpha R 2B without the approval of the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA), leading to millions of dollars in wasted medication,” the article reads. 

It gives its source as another article on the Citizen news website, which has a different headline.

How many cabinet ministers have gone to jail for this corruption?” one Twitter user asked in response to the tweet.

Six Covid vaccines have been approved for use in South Africa. The authorisation was granted by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra), which investigates whether health products such as vaccines are effective and safe to use. 

In 2021, the national health department reviewed several studies of vaccine hesitancy. It found that this hesitancy was driven by distrust in the government and low confidence in how vaccines were assessed as safe to use. 

Before Covid, it could take Sahpra three to four years to approve a new product because the regulator was steadily working through a huge backlog of applications,Portia Nkambule, the agency's chief regulatory officer wrote.

During the pandemic, though, we were able to cut the review process of Covid-19 vaccines down to between four and 11 months”.

In 2019, Africa Check looked into claims that Covid vaccines were unsafe because they were developed so quickly. We found that “strict clinical and safety standards were maintained” in the development of the vaccines, making them safe.  

But is it true that vaccines allowed into the country and given to South Africans included some that were wrong and not approved by Sahpra?  


Covid nasal sprays from Cuba sent back

In a responding tweet, the health department dismissed the claim as “fake news”.

#COVID19 vaccines used in South Africa are safe the tweet reads.  It includes a screenshot of the Opera News headline with “FAKE” stamped across it.



The claim can be traced back to March 2020, when South Africa’s defence department bought 939,528 vials of the drug interferon alfa-2b from the Caribbean country of Cuba.

Known in Cuba as Heberon alfa R, the drug is for the “mitigation of Covid-19 complications”. The batch was to be used exclusively by members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

In a January 2021 statement, the SANDF explained that the drug was not a vaccine. It is instead a solution that is diluted and sprayed into the nose with a syringe. The statement also claimed that the drug had been approved by Sahpra. 

The South African Military Health Services duly applied for … the use of the drug to Sahpra and got approval on the 5th of October 2020 for the purposed use detailed in that application.

But South Africa’s public protector, an independent state-funded agency that investigates possible wrongdoing in government, received a complaint about the deal between the defence department and Cuba.

In September 2022, the public protector released a report on its investigation. It made the following conclusions: 

  1. The army didn’t follow the laws and processes required for importing interferon alfa-2b from Cuba.
  2. The drug was not registered to treat Covid in South Africa as it was not approved by Sahpra. The evidence showed that Sahpra had in fact told the army to return the drug to Cuba, which it did in January and February 2022.

The report also said Dr Joseph Thabo Mnisi, the SANDF’s chief medical specialist, confirmed that 10 vials of the drug were administered to one person. 

The claim that “South Africans” as a whole took the “wrong vaccine” is incorrect. Interferon alfa-2b is not a vaccine and was only given to one person. 

Opera News has come under scrutiny and criticism for the quality of its articles – even though it has guidelines against “fake news”.

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