The federal government has signed contracts worth more than $60 million for the supply of rapid antigen tests this week without a tender process due to “extreme urgency or events unforeseen”.
Included in the companies selected by the government following a closed tender is one linked to a medical practice offering the controversial ivermectin to treat COVID-19 last year, and another which has employed a Liberal-aligned federal lobbying firm in recent months.
The lack of availability of rapid antigen tests had led to skyrocketing prices in the face of a government decision to not make them free and an urgent need for further stock.
The Department of Health this week signed five contracts for the procurement of rapid antigen tests (RATs), worth a total of more than $60 million over less than a month.
The contracts are with Australian-based companies who have been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to sponsor overseas RATs, all imported from China.
This is despite Queensland company Ellume manufacturing more than 100,00 RATs every day in Brisbane, which are being exported to the US.
Victoria-based Suretest Medical has landed a $7.37 million contract to supply RATs to the department. Suretest is importing the Wantai RAT kit from the Beijing Wantai Biologicalpharmacy Enterprise in China.
Suretest was founded by Dr Peter Lewis, the medical director of Surecell. Last year it was reported that Surecell had been offering controversial anti-parasite drug ivermectin for the treatment of COVID-19.
In a statement to 9News at the time, Dr Lewis said offering the drug was about giving people choice.
“Ivermectin is not an alternative to vaccines,” Dr Lewis told 9News.
“It’s an early intervention strategy for those who are vaccinated or not.”
Medical experts have urged against the use of ivermectin to treat COVID-19, with the US Food and Drug Administration slamming its increased usage last year.
The Department of Health issues the RATs contract following a limited tender process due to “extreme urgency or events unforeseen”. This means the department did not fully approach the market or provide the opportunity for any company to pitch to the government.
Another successful company which will be providing RATs to the government is Hough Pharma, a Gold Coast medical supplies firm.
Last year Hough Pharma appeared on the client list of Premier National, a Liberal-aligned federal lobbying firm. The company is led by former NSW Liberal Minister Michael Photios.
Hough Pharma was this week awarded a $4.4 million contract to supply RATs to the federal government. The company is the Australian sponsor of the BIOHIT rapid antigen test, made in China.
Stonestar Wholesale, a Victorian company specialising in manufacturing wheels, cargo, machinery and solar energy, landed a $7.26 million contract this week to supply the VivaDiag rapid test to the government.
The largest of this week’s RAT contracts went to AM Diagnostics, which will be paid $32.89 million to supply China-made tests to the government.
Australia Health Products Central has also landed a $9.9 million deal to also supply tests to the Department.
While the government will be paying these companies more than $60 million for the RATs imported from overseas, the Australia company making these tests locally is itself exporting the tests to the US.
While Ellume secured a portion of a $50 million grant from the Queensland government last year – the exact amount is commercial-in-confidence- to expand its manufacturing facility in Brisbane, it is yet to apply for TGA approval for its RATs and all of them are currently being shipped for use in the US.
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