THE controversial US$17 million Health Centre Kits tender awarded to HoneyBee Pharmacy has culminated into a supply of damaged, toxic drugs to the Ministry of Health.

But Zackir Motala, who is now carrying the title of HoneyBee Pharmacy manager, says the discolouration on the drugs could have been caused by exposure to water and that this is the fault of the manufacturer who he says has since been contacted to recall the affected batch.

Whistleblowers in the Ministry of Health have expressed concern that the HoneyBee Pharmacy-supplied drugs could have fatal effects on patients.

“The scandalous health centre kits that you have been writing about has now resulted in toxic drugs being supplied. The drugs are finally here, but they are in a very dangerous state. When you look at this consignment of paracetamol, for example, these are damaged drugs, probably even degraded. The tablets are discoloured and could be extremely harmful. Look, people will try to defend this scandal but, anyone can see that these are chemicals which have been treated and kept in poor environment and in an unprofessional manner. That’s why they are coming out like this,” the whistleblower said.

“If you remember what happened during the tendering process of this medical supply contract, a lot of corners where cut. You reported that HoneyBee Pharmacy did not have a wholesale licence, that was true, but no one cared. You reported that they failed ZAMRA inspection but they were given a licence, again that was true but no one cared. Now, here we are! Look at how people’s lives are being endangered by the carelessness and lack of due diligence on the part of the ministry. In a normal country this scandal would call for, not just the resignation but the arrest of the people involved. It’s really sad that people can be playing around with the lives of people like this. US$17 million is a lot of money for a poor country like Zambia.”

Earlier Jerome Kanyika who wrote in his claimed capacity of Pharmaceutical Society of Zambia expressed concern over the standard of medical drugs supplied by HoneyBee Pharmacy.

“The Pharmaceutical Society of Zambia (PSZ) is concerned with the numerous negative reports of the quality of medicines supplied to the Zambian Government by Honey Bee Zambia of Lusaka. This first batch of 2,376 health centre kit was flagged off on 3rd September, 2020 at Medical Stores in Lusaka. While quality tests have not yet confirmed whether these products are substandard or falsified, as professionals, we take these reports with keen interest. The major problem with substandard and falsified medical products is that they may cause harm to patients and fail to treat the diseases for which they were intended,” Kanyika stated.

He stated the need for a quick medical quality tests in order to ascertain whether or not the drugs met the required standard.

“It has come to our attention that these medicines suspected to be either falsified or substandard have been distributed in public health facilities and currently being supplied to patients across the country. Further information indicates that these are medicines reported to have supplied by Honey Bee Zambia in a tender bid by government worth US$17 million to supply health centre kits. Based on our quick preliminary findings around the country, and the images received from various people including some patients, there is need to carry out quick and comprehensive medicine quality tests in order to ensure that these medicines meet the required standard for quality, safety and efficacy to ensure they conform and are safe and fit for human consumption. Most people have reported clear discolouration of tablets, poor friability and smell, all characteristic signatures of substandard medicines,” Kanyika further stated.

But Motala said not all the drugs were damaged, stressing that the discolouration was a problem of the manufacturer and not HoneyBee Pharmacy

“All our medicine has been collected from WHO CNP accredited [manufacture]. If you know the system of pharmaceuticals, there is nothing like sub-standard. If there is anything substandard, there is a regulatory body. So, all these are governed by WHO (World Health Organisation). If there is any drug which has probably discoloured or anything that is not fit for consumption, the regulatory body is contacted and then that medicine is recalled from the public. And it goes back to the manufacturer. So, before you even think of writing a screaming headline or before you even think of victimising us, because you have victimised us a lot, this is a chain. Us, we are the suppliers, and we go to the manufacturers. And the manufacturer has to have a WHO certification. And we only get drugs from WHO certified manufacturers so that we don’t get anything from street vendors. So, when we get from WHO certified manufacturers, we are also protected and even the people of Zambia are going to be protected and even the ministry is going to be protected,” Motala stated.

He said the manufacturer has already committed that he will take responsibility for whatever problems may arise with the drugs.

“And we got a letter from the manufacturer that whatever problem you may face on these drugs, and that is only paracetamol. And in a kit, there are almost 65 different items. The only problem which is common is with some paracetamol products which have discoloured. So, we have contacted the manufacturer and the manufacturer has actually put it in writing to us. And these are not small people. They have been doing huge business with different African countries [like] Sierra Leone, Angola, etc where they have been sending huge tonnages of medicine. They have immediately told us that ‘don’t worry, we will stand by you. If there is any recall, then we are going to immediately replace.’ We are also very equally concerned because we are the suppliers,” Motala said.

“Our aim was to make sure that we make available the much needed drugs to the people of Zambia. And when this came, we were very concerned at first. So, maybe somehow some drugs were exposed to some water. In India we call it Monsum and because of that it has discoloured. But the good part for you I hope, and the good part for the country, and for us is that they have said that they will immediately replace, immediately we tell them that so many batches have been recalled. And it will be replaced.”

He also said that only paracetamol has been identified to have some discolouration.

“If there is any detection of anything wrong in any medicine, then there is a regulatory body and that regulatory body is the one that writes to us to say ‘this is not probably fit for consumption or maybe there is discolouration in the drug or we want you to recall.’ And immediately, the drug is recalled. So, it’s that particular product (paracetamol). I was also asking ZAMRA to say how does the system work? Then they said ‘you are just a supplier, so, immediately you are supposed to inform the manufacturer.’ And the manufacturer has already been informed,” Motala explained.

Asked to explain at what point he realised that the drugs were damaged and if inspection was done at the point of loading, Motala said he only learnt a few days ago.

“We just realised now, because normally what happens is that after those people have supplied, and then the medicine goes into the sea [for the transportation] maybe for a month, and then we received and we supply. We opened a few boxes to see whether everything was in order. And when we opened, that is when we found that there is this discoloured product on paracetamol. There were other kits which had already been distributed and we received the report today (Wednesday) and immediately we contacted our manufacturer. And we are talking even with ZAMRA,” he added.

“So, it is not the entire consignment. It is according to batches. And the raw material that the manufacturer uses is according to the batches so that if there is any problem, they immediately go to the batches to say which batch number has a problem. And that particular batch is then recalled. I hope you understand also that these drugs are coming into the country after one year. I know there are some people who have got that syndrome of “pull this one down” but if we have a clear conscience and if we are working towards improving the lives of the people, then we will have a clear focus and see that okay, if there is a mistake, how do we correct it, rather than adopting other ways of trying to pull somebody down.Our focus and our aim is to try and help our government and help our people also. And you know actually when our drugs came, we were so happy that at least we managed to do something after one year. Now, imagine in the health centres, there were no essential drugs but we have managed to bring.”

Meanwhile, Zambia Medical Regulatory Authority (ZAMRA) senior public relations officer Christabel Iliamupu said the authority has taken some samples of the said Honeybee-supplied drugs for quality testing and that the public will be informed once the results are out.

“ZAMRA has put in place a number of mechanisms to ensure that only medicines and allied substances that meet the set standards of quality, safety and efficacy are placed on the market. With regards to the quality of medicines and Health Centre Kits supplied by Honey Bee, the Authority undertook its Post Marketing Surveillance activities on the products before they were distributed. This was a targeted sampling that was directed towards establishing the quality of the Health Centre Kits. Selected samples have since been taken to the National Quality Control Laboratory and Zambia Bureau of Standards for quality testing and assessment. Members of the public will be informed of the findings and any medical product and allied substance found not to comply with set standards will be removed from circulation,” Iliamupu stated in her response to a News Diggers press query.

And when contacted, Ministry of Health Permanent Secretary for Technical Services Dr Kennedy Malama after hearing the query referred this reporter to his counterpart for administration.

In June this year, News Diggers published an exposé detailing how government had illegally awarded the US$17 million contract to HoneyBee Pharmacy, a sole trading entity that was only registered as a business name under an individual called Imran Lunati.

According to the News Diggers Investigation, records at the ministry showed that a solicitation document for the tender was issued on October 1, 2019 and the evaluation of bids was done on October 22, 2019 while the contract between HoneyBee Pharmacy Limited and Ministry of Health was signed on November 22, 2019.

But PACRA records did not show any company that existed prior to 2019 registered as HoneyBee Pharmacy Limited.

In a statement, the Ministry of Health defended the decision, saying the word “limited” was erroneously added to the company awarded the contract.

Attorney General Likando Kalaluka said there was nothing sinister about awarding a US$17 million government contract to an individual.

Asked to explain who would be liable of any breach of contract, Kalaluka said government would pursue the individual who won the tender.