‘Operation Warp Speed’: Vaccine programme co-director will not be required to divulge pharmaceutical ties

The co-director of the White House’s coronavirus vaccine development programme will not be required to divest his pharmaceutical company investments or be subject to ethical disclosure rules, reports have said.

Dr Moncef Slaoui, who is currently leading the government’s Operation Warp Speed, has extensive ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

The doctor and venture capitalist is a former longtime executive at GlaxoSmithKline, a multinational pharmaceutical company, and he also recently sat on the board of biotechnology company Moderna, one of the leading companies in the race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine that has received hundreds of millions in government funding.

Two watchdog groups called for the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG) to order that the scientist be listed as a government employee or a “special government employee” (SGE) so that he is required to disclose potential conflicts of interest.

Because Dr Slaoui is currently employed as a “volunteer contractor” he is not considered an official government staff member and is therefore not required to adhere to federal disclosure rules.

“The contractual arrangement that regards Dr Slaoui as merely a private contractor appears unwarranted and designed primarily to allow Dr Slaoui to maintain an extensive web of conflicting financial interests without the need to divest of, recuse from or disclose those conflicting interests,” Public Citizen, one of the two watchdog groups, said.

Classifying Dr Slaoui as a special employee would mean he would be hired by the government as an outside expert for up to 130 days and would consequently be subject to the same ethical disclosure and divestment rules as permanent federal employees.

However, OIG stated in a letter to the watchdog groups that the vaccine contact is expected to run beyond 200 days, and therefore he would not be eligible to be classified as a SGE, The Washington Post reported.

“OIG is not in a position to determine that the Department’s decision was unreasonable when it pursued options other than an SGE appointment for Mr Slaoui’s advisory services for this operation,” the letter reportedly said.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has reiterated that Dr Slaoui resigned from the board of Moderna before taking the administrative role and divested his equity, The New York Times reported.

“HHS ethics officers have determined Dr Slaoui’s contractor status, divestiture and board resignations put him in compliance with our robust department ethical standards,” a spokesperson told the newspaper.

In his position as chief adviser, Dr Slaoui has significant input over financial commitments made by the government project.

“The basic idea that he’s in a really privileged position with lots of resources to command and that he has a personal financial stake in the industry is really challenging,” Margarida Jorge, the campaign director for Lower Drug Prices Now, the second watchdog, told The Times.

“Everyone can appreciate that Dr Slaoui has expertise in the development of vaccines, but expertise and ethics should not be mutually exclusive.”

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