Trump Picks Ex-Drug Company Executive to Lead Accelerated Coronavirus Vaccine Effort
WASHINGTON — President Trump has picked a former executive of a major pharmaceutical company to lead Operation Warp Speed, the government’s effort to speed up development of a vaccine for the coronavirus, a senior administration official said Wednesday.
Moncef Slaoui, a former chairman of vaccines at GlaxoSmithKline, one of the nation’s largest pharmaceutical conglomerates, will serve as the chief adviser on the vaccine effort, and Gen. Gustave F. Perna, a four-star general who is in charge of the Army’s readiness as head of the Army Matériel Command, will be the chief operating officer.
The two men will lead a crash development program ordered by Mr. Trump that is meant to ensure that a vaccine will be ready for wide distribution in the United States by as early as next year. In late April, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed the effort, but provided few details.
“Operation Warp Speed is clearly another extension of President Trump’s bold leadership and unwillingness to accept ‘business as usual’ approaches to addressing the Covid-19 crisis,” Michael R. Caputo, the department’s assistant secretary for public affairs, said at the time.
A working and widely available vaccine will be one of the keys to fully and safely restarting the country’s economy, something Mr. Trump has repeatedly pushed governors to begin doing. The United States will probably need at least 300 million doses of a vaccine to fully halt the spread of the pathogen.
But some of Mr. Trump’s top public health advisers have repeatedly cautioned that an effective vaccine might not be ready for widespread distribution for 18 months, and perhaps even longer. Mr. Trump ordered the creation of the Warp Speed program to try to speed that timeline.
In selecting Mr. Slaoui and Gen. Perna to oversee the effort, the president has chosen two people with separate but critical skills.
Mr. Slaoui, who has been a venture capitalist since leaving GlaxoSmithKline in 2017, worked for 30 years at the company, helping lead the development of dozens of vaccines. He has a doctorate in molecular biology and immunology and studied at Harvard Medical School and Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.
His former company, GlaxoSmithKline, is working with Sanofi, a French drug company, to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus. The White House is betting that Mr. Slaoui will bring drugmaking expertise to the push for speedy development of the vaccine.
General Perna, by contrast, is a logistics expert who runs the Army’s complex supply chain, making sure that American soldiers across the globe have what they need. One of the challenges with a vaccine will be manufacturing and distributing enough doses across the entire country.
Watchdog groups reacted warily to news of Mr. Slaoui’s appointment. Public Citizen noted in a statement that Mr. Slaoui serves on the boards of several pharmaceutical companies.
“Slaoui’s blatant financial conflicts of interest disqualify him for the role of vaccine czar, unless he commits immediately to global vaccine access conditions over the obvious profit interests of the corporations he serves,” the group wrote.
The Warp Speed program is intended to jump-start what is already a robust race to find a vaccine that involves several of the biggest pharmaceutical companies and a handful of government agencies whose mission is to help spur innovation among private companies at times of national crisis.
The appointments of Mr. Slaoui and General Perna to lead the new effort come a day before Dr. Rick Bright, a whistle-blower who said he was removed from his job as director of BARDA after objecting to the widespread use of malaria drugs promoted by Mr. Trump, is expected to criticize the administration’s response to the virus in testimony on Thursday.
“Our window of opportunity is closing,” Dr. Bright wrote in advance testimony. “If we fail to develop a national coordinated response, based in science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities.”
Dr. Bright is expected to tell lawmakers that the Trump administration “dismissed early warning signals, and we forgot important pages from our pandemic playbook” as the virus emerged as a threat overseas. He is also expected to say that his superiors at the Department of Health and Human Services were “dismissive about my dire predictions” when he pushed them to ramp up production of masks, respirators and other critical supplies.
Dr. Bright made the same allegations in his whistle-blower complaint, which the department strongly denied.
“This is a personnel matter that is currently under review,” Caitlin Oakley, a spokeswoman for the department, said in an email last week. “However, H.H.S. strongly disagrees with the allegations and characterizations in the complaint from Dr. Bright.”
The Office of Special Counsel, the federal agency that is investigating the complaint, has notified Dr. Bright’s lawyers that it has found “reasonable grounds” that his dismissal was an act of retaliation and has recommended that he be reinstated for 45 days as their inquiry proceeds. A spokeswoman for the lawyers said the department had not yet responded to that request.
David Sanger contributed reporting.