New ‘Vaccine Czar’ Must Disclose Holdings and Conflicts of Interest, Say Watchdog Groups

June 1, 2020

Two watchdog groups are pressing the U.S. Office of Government Ethics to reclassify the “vaccine czar” position President Trump recently filled, making it a government job requiring disclosure of all conflicts of interest instead of a private contractor position not bound by disclosure regulations and criminal ethics laws.

The move by the groups Public Citizen and Lower Drug Prices Now was sparked when Trump named Moncef Slaoui, the former head of GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK) vaccine program, to be co-leader and chief adviser of the administration’s Operation Warp Speed program that oversees development and funding of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.

Before his appointment, Slaoui, now a venture capitalist, was on the board of the biotech company Moderna, which is receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. government to work on a COVID-19 vaccine. Slaoui resigned from the board just before taking the vaccine czar position, but kept his Moderna stock options, worth more than $10 million. Slaoui was also on the board of Lonza, a manufacturing firm that is partnering with Moderna to make a vaccine. He also resigned from that board.

Slaoui denied a conflict of interest at first, but on May 19, after complaints from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others, divested himself of his Moderna stock. He also resigned as adviser to Brii Biosciences, and said he would resign from Artizan Biosciences and Clasado, which both develop treatments for intestinal ailments. Slaoui said he would remain on the board of SutroVax,  a developer of pneumonia vaccines that recently raised $110 million in funding. He said he will also continue on the boards of cancer-focused drug developers Divide & Conquer and Monopteros.

He is, however, retaining his GSK stock, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. That move that was reportedly cleared by HHS, which is overseeing Operation Warp Speed. GSK is very active in the COVID-19 space, announcing a partnership with Sanofi in April to develop a vaccine that could be in clinical trials later this year.

And he’s still a partner in Medicxi, a venture capital firm specializing in biotech, with many of its portfolio companies scrambling to develop therapies or vaccines to fight COVID-19. Also, two of Medicxi’s investors are Johnson & Johnson and a division of GSK, both of which are working on COVID-19 vaccines.

The advocacy groups said Slaoui's connections to the industry would call into question Operation Warp Speed’s decisions.

"The President certainly has the authority to appoint Slaoui to such a leadership position in government, but the public also has the legal authority to demand that Slaoui’s public service not be tainted by personal gain," said the watchdog groups in their complaint.

HHS did not respond to a request for comment.

Read the full complaint here: www.fdanews.com/05-29-20-SlaouiComplaint.pdf. — Suz Redfearn