The former pharmaceutical executive tapped by President Trump to lead the federal effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine owns stock options worth more than $10 million in a company receiving funding from that same program, Stat News reports. Until his appointment, Dr. Moncef Slaoui was on the board of the company, Moderna, one of the leading companies in the race for a vaccine and the first to enter a vaccine into clinical trials.
Slaoui’s ownership of 156,000 Moderna stock options, disclosed in required federal financial filings, sparked concerns about a conflict of interest. Democratic Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren called Slaoui out over the matter on Twitter: “It is a huge conflict of interest for the White House’s new vaccine czar to own $10 million of stock in a company receiving government funding to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Slaoui should divest immediately.”
The company’s shares skyrocketed last month after news broke of the $483 million in federal funding to work on a coronavirus vaccine.
Slaoui could not immediately be reached for comment on the matter.
The former GlaxoSmithKline executive echoed Trump’s rosy projections about the timeline for a vaccine while speaking alongside the president in the Rose Garden on Friday to unveil “Operation Warp Speed,” the White House’s plan to research and manufacture hundreds of millions of doses of a new COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2020.
“Mr. President, I have very recently seen early data from a clinical trial with a coronavirus vaccine,” he said to applause. “These data make me feel even more confident that we will be able to deliver a few hundred million doses of vaccine by the end of 2020.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar offered a different timeframe a short time later, estimating that the vaccine would be ready by January 2021.
Vaccine experts and other members of the White House’s coronavirus task force, meanwhile, have repeatedly warned that it would take a minimum of a year to a year and a half to develop a safe and effective vaccine.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has sought to tamper expectations about a quick vaccine since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, and although he stood alongside Trump for the announcement of “Operation Warp Speed” on Friday, he was not given time to speak.
Operation Warp Speed—touted by Trump as “a massive scientific industrial and logistical endeavor unlike anything our country has seen since the Manhattan Project”—relies on heavy participation from a host of pharmaceutical companies, several of which are receiving federal funding for their research like Moderna. Slaoui is joined in the project by Gustave Perna, a four-star U.S. general who will serve as the chief operating officer.
There is no known cure for COVID-19, which is contagious in the extreme, and medical interventions against it like intubation and ventilation are often severe. Public health experts say the greatest hope for returning society to normal is a vaccine that establishes immunity and boxes out the virus.
Trump has faced criticism for minimizing these concerns in public calls to reopen businesses and resume pre-pandemic life, and at one point on Friday he reiterated his belief that the virus will simply “go away,” regardless of whether or not vaccine research comes to fruition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now projects that 100,000 Americans will die of the virus by June.
Neither Trump nor Slaoui said the vaccine would be made available for free. Trump attempted to offer assurances on the topic of price, saying “The last thing anybody’s looking for is profit.”
But when asked directly if the vaccine would be offered to the public free of charge, he was non-committal, saying only: “We’re looking at that, actually.”
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