Zambians call them “Honeybee condoms.” As reported in multiple local outlets in January 2021, these condoms were OKed by government officials, even though they were defective.
“I get panic attacks. Pimples appeared on my penis in December. I wore the Honeybee condoms sometime in 2020,” says Pule Banda, 35, a private-school teacher in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, who hid his surname to protect his job.
Pule says, mentally, he is falling apart. His chemist recommends that if he fears an HIV test so much, at least he should start with a hepatitis B test.
On the other end of the spectrum is Samantha Banda (surname changed), 56, a housewife in Lusaka. She laments: “My 19-year-old son says he was a virgin and used the Honeybee condoms on his first encounter. Recently, he tested positive for HIV. I’m gutted.”
Dread swirls in public chats in Zambia, a country of 19 million in the southern part of Africa. Zambia is the number-eight country most impacted by HIV globally. However, in the past decade, good treatment progress has slashed new infections by tens of thousands. The so-called Honeybee condoms saga could unravel this progress, patients, activists, lawmakers, and doctors fear.
Who Is Honeybee?
In August 2020, Honeybee, a little-known, walk-in pharmacy retailer in Zambia with no discernible website, was contracted by Zambia’s health ministry to import and supply condoms, pregnancy test kits, and latex gloves for public and hospital use in Zambia. It was a $17 million deal, according to Themba Dube, secretary of the Lusaka Youth AIDS Forum, an informal association of community HIV activists in the capital’s low-income townships.
Zambia’s lawmakers examining the scandal accuse the Honeybee Pharmacy of importing leaky condoms and defective latex gloves, pregnancy test kits, and vaginal inserts from India and distributing them beginning in September 2020. As of January 2021, Zambia’s police are probing Honeybee Pharmacy for corrupt practices. Authorities have frozen its trading license too.
“This is the biggest deadly corruption story of 2020 in Zambia,” Dube tells TheBody.
Damning Lab Tests
What deepened anger is revelations from laboratory tests carried out on Honeybee’s contraceptive samples on September 22. Manuel Mutale, the executive director of the Zambia Bureau of Standards (ZABS), which is a public agency running eight laboratories in Zambia and mandated to examine all imports from petroleum to condoms for safety concerns, says his ZABS agency examined sample batches of Honeybee condoms.
Zambia’s health ministry, represented by the Zambia Medicines and Regulatory Authority (ZAMRA) and Medical Stores Limited (MSL), brought the samples to ZABS to test, as per safety requirements when new contraceptives land on the market.
“Our findings were that the male latex condoms batches supplied by Honeybee failed to meet [the international] ISO-4074 standards. When we test condoms, we examine watertightness. One test is called ‘hang and roll.’ You hang a condom on a test machine and introduce water. No leaks must emerge. We also do what we call a bursting volume. You insert pressure and let the condoms balloon. There are certain thresholds where a condom must not burst. Another test is packaging integrity. For condoms sealed in a package, you don’t expect to see some leakage, i.e., lubricating materials,” Mutale tells TheBody.
Jason Zulu, an independent biomedical scientist in Lusaka who did not take part in the tests, says the ZABS laboratory test procedures are proper and credible. “From electronic condom hole-testers to water tests, the goal is to catch holes because sperm and fluids can leak whilst users expect a barrier,” he tells TheBody.
In terms of the ISO global condom-examination rules, the tester, ZABS laboratory, was required to report its findings to the client. In this case, the client is the government of Zambia (its health ministry), represented by ZAMRA and MSL.
ZABS laboratory did its reporting duty, says Mutale.
The agencies were then required to issue a certificate declaring whether contraceptives imported by Honeybee were safe and secure for public use, explains Zulu, the biomedical scientist. “Swiftly, a public recall had to be announced for leaky condoms,” he says.
No Condoms Recall
No recall happened, and no public warning was issued. The distribution of the faulty Honeybee condoms, pregnancy test kits, and latex gloves into communities continued.
In January 2021, the heat of the growing scandal could not be suppressed. Edgar Lungu, the president of Zambia, fired the country’s health minister, Chitalu Chilufya. Ironically, the dismissed minister is a medical doctor. In January too, Zambia’s lawmakers opened an inquiry into the saga. The country’s health ministry via MSL and ZAMRA agencies admitted to lawmakers during a hearing that Honeybee-supplied substandard condoms and gloves were indeed distributed from September 2020 without passing safety-assurance tests, and the items were still in circulation as of January 7.
Christabel IIiamupu, a spokesperson for ZAMRA, initially agreed to give TheBody a response on why the distribution of faulty condoms continued until January 2021 despite the existence of damning laboratory test results in September 2020. Later, Iliamupu went cold on TheBody’s request for an explanation.
However—when pressed by lawmakers—Bonaventure Chilinde, a clinical director at ZAMRA, representing the country’s health ministry, claimed bizarrely that they didn’t recall known leaky condoms from the public because they had sent samples to the neighboring country of Zimbabwe, hoping to get a second laboratory-test opinion at a World Health Organization (WHO)–accredited facility.
Kapembwa Simbao, a lawmaker taking part in the probe, is scathing about this explanation. “When you get a laboratory report that these condoms, gloves are suspect, what do you do? Do you have to wait for a second opinion, or [do] you immediately say, ‘Hold these things until you get a second opinion’?”
On January 7, 2021, the heat of the scandal had become unbearable. The Zambia health ministry, via its ZAMRA agency, finally publicly ordered Honeybee Pharmacy to recall its condoms and stop distributing pregnancy test kits and vaginal inserts too within 14 days. The ministry disclosed to citizens that the contraceptives failed quality-assurance tests at the ZABS laboratory way back in September.
“The four-month timeline from September, to ignoring laboratory-tests findings, up to January, smells to me a corrupt pact between Honeybee Pharmacy and senior persons in the health ministry to make sure the lucrative, leaky condoms deal succeeded at all costs,” says Dube, the community HIV activist.
Zakir Motala, the director of Honeybee Pharmacy, the company at the heart of the saga, refused to answer TheBody’s questions over the alleged malpractices. But in January, he had told lawmakers that his manufacturers in India are all WHO-certified and that Honeybee Pharmacy visited those facilities in India, checked the premises, and did quality controls.
Think of Sex Workers, Medics
This is a very serious matter, Mwansa Mbulakulima, a furious lawmaker who is also probing the saga, tells TheBody. “It’s not a small issue—people will die, who will be answerable? Think of medics, sex workers, citizens who used condoms, gloves, medicines. It’s a big number.”
Samuel Jaro, 37, an intern doctor at the University Teaching Hospital, the largest public hospital in Lusaka, changed his name for this story so he could speak freely; otherwise, chatting openly to the press about the condoms corruption saga would cause him job loss and secret-police interrogation.
“I have three patients who say they fell pregnant whilst their partners were wearing Honeybee condoms,” Jaro says. “I told them, ‘I, as your doctor, am sleepless too because I don’t know if latex gloves I wore in theatre are safe.’ It’s double humiliation to both the doctor and medic.”
Jaro adds: “Most Zambia doctors’ WhatsApp groups are filled with tales of depressed male patients seeking HIV tests because they wore Honeybee condoms but now realize that might have been a foolish pleasure.”
The biggest damage from this saga is that public attitudes in Zambia will be skewed towards a belief that all condoms on the market are unsafe, continues Jason Zulu, the independent biomedical scientist in Lusaka.
“This is such a disastrous scandal. Expect less condom use in the communities. Stigmas associated with condoms are already significant in Zambia. Studies say about 35% of women and 54% of men used condoms in their last intercourse with a non-marital partner, which is already a low number. This saga will feed further conspiracy theories against condoms.”
Editor’s note: Many of those interviewed for this article changed their surname or full name for fear of the Zambia secret police or stigma.