By Nikolaos Prakas and Elias Hazou

Lawmakers heard on Thursday that a warehouse where medicines were being stored and which was recently flooded, was unfit for purpose – a fact known to authorities since at least late 2019.

From a preliminary assessment, government officials estimated the damage to the medicines at €880,000. They said 105,401 packages were spoiled, concerning 149 different pharmaceuticals.

The warehouse is located in the industrial zone of Strovolos, Nicosia district.

The House health committee summoned officials to give an account of the incident taking place on March 18, when a hailstorm caused a flood in the pharmaceuticals’ storage warehouse, which was found later in the day to be completely unfit and operating without proper licencing.

MPs heard that a decision had been taken in February 2020 to relocate the warehouse – but got postponed because of the situation with the coronavirus pandemic. The decision to relocate was reconfirmed in February 2024. Officials now hope the relocation will take place by October.

Parliamentarians also learned that, in addition to the flooding of March 18, two other incidents involving water leaks at the same premises occurred last year.

Head of the health ministry’s pharmaceutical services, Elena Panayiotopoulou, said that jurisdiction over medicine warehouses was transferred away from them and to the ministry’s purchasing and supplies directorate in 2017.

However, in November 2019 the pharmaceutical services were asked to carry out a report into the state of the premises. Inspectors found a worn floor, no system in place measuring room temperature, no insect traps, items cluttering the space, and cracks in the roof of the building.

The inspection also revealed that the space where recalled drugs were being stored, was unlocked.

Answering a question, Panayiotopoulou said that no other inspection has taken place since the one in 2019.

Head of the directorate of purchasing and supplies, Christos Nicolaou, told MPs that the damaged pharmaceutical packages included 20 units of a cancer medicine, each costing €2,000.

Marina Georgiou, in charge of the ad hoc committee tasked with investigating the March 18 incident, said that instructions have been given to order stocks of medicines equivalent to those damaged.

Meantime the committee is checking whether the medicines themselves inside the packages have spoiled.

The warehouse was leased by one government service in the health ministry to a private contractor for €6,600 a year, according to what had been revealed in the media. This private contractor was then subletting to another health ministry service for €135,000 a year.

The financial information comes from a report filed in 2018 by the Audit Office, which had most recently warned about the warehouse again on March 28.

The agency had also found issues in the construction of the warehouse, which had issues with the drop ceiling and other structural problems deemed dangerous.

Chair of the House health committee, Disy MP Efthymios Diplaros, said they wanted answers.

“We felt it was right to call the relevant departments of the health ministry to inform us about this. […] If it is established that there may be some blame, then we will be the first to call for an investigation into the matter and for accountability to be taken,” he said.

Akel MP Nikos Kettiros likewise raised concern over why the pharmaceuticals hadn’t been moved, as had also been stipulated in the 2018 audit report, which found them to be improperly stored.

The pharmaceuticals stored in the warehouse were reported to be those given to individuals with specialised therapies, which require the approval of the health ministry.

Health Minister Michael Damianos had downplayed portrayals of the disaster as “huge” on Wednesday, saying that appraisals of the situation must hold off until the committee’s work of registering damages was completed.