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Sri Lankan minister arrested for fake drugs scandal

Sri Lanka’s former health minister and current environment minister, Keheliya Rambukwella, has been arrested by Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigations Department (CID) following revelations that close a half million dollars ($465,000) spent on a life-saving drugs that failed quality tests.

In October, the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) revealed that forged documents had been submitted to purchase human immunoglobin, a life-saving drug used to treat severe antibody deficiencies, which proved to be of poor quality. This followed a volume of complaints from hospitals from the middle of last year detailing patients’ reactions to the drug. 

In December six other officials were detained in relation to this case including the former Secretary to the Ministry of Health, Janaka Chandragupta.

The product is reported to have been made by the Indian company Livealth Biopharma Pvt Ltd and imported by the Sri Lankan medical supplier,  Isolez Biotech Pharma AG (Pvt) Ltd. The Indian manufacturer has denied any involvement in the fraud has told the NMRA that it has neither manufactured, supplied nor exported these products to any party.

The fraud was committed amidst the height of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis where families were citizens were suffering from acute shortage of medicines and other essentials.

Read more here and here.

The scandal came to light last year when the Sunday Times reported that the Indian company which officials in Sri Lanka claimed exported the drug denied it had anything to do with the medication. In response to a query by the Sunday Times regarding the tender for 22,500 vials of human immunoglobulin IV5g, the Indian company Livealth Biopharma denied manufacturing nor supplying these drugs. “The best part is we have never manufactured, supplied or exported these products to any party to date.” a spokesperson for the company had told the Sunday Times. 

Rambukwella said that the Medical Supplies Division had paid 40 million for 3,085 vials that were supplied and distributed by the Division to various hospitals between July and September 2023. The Medical Research Institute laboratory found that the vials contained “IgG below detectable levels”. Last week, officials from the CID inspected the Isolez Biotech Pharma factory in Seeduwa, which is alleged to have produced sub-standard Immunoglobulin. The officers found 10 vials of the immunoglobulin in the refrigerator of the factory and confiscated it. 

Sri Lanka is said to have produced these substandard medications at a time when the country was experiencing an acute shortage of medicines following the economic crisis. Most medications were financed through a credit line from India at the time. 

The Sri Lankan court imposed a travel ban on Keheliya and ordered that he be remanded until the 15th of this month. A few hours after the preliminary hearing, Keheliya was transferred from prison to the prison hospital due to health concerns.

Rambukwella is also known for his stance on Sri Lanka’s discriminatory forced cremation policy during COVID-19. At the time he was the Minister of Health and refused  to issue an apology for the government’s discriminatory policy which was internationally condemned. This policy was widely rebuked by the international community and health experts who maintained that this was a violation of Muslim and Christian burial rights.

Before this, Keheliya has hit out at Tamils, dismissing the Sencholai massacre where 53 school girls and 3 teachers from the orphanage were killed in a targeted attack by Sri Lanka Air Force. “We have studied this for three years and know what was going on," claimed then-Sri Lankan government spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella.

"If the children are terrorists, what can we do? The fact is that gender or the age limit is of no concern when it comes to training and when it comes to soldiers because they are carrying arms in order to kill the enemy."

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