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Is a former GSK pharma exec from Philly’s Main Line the right czar to speed the nation’s coronavirus vaccine?

Born in Morocco, educated in Belgium and the Ivy League, and a registered Democrat, Moncef Slaoui of Gladwyne is “a world-renowned immunologist,” Trump declared, just the man to run Operation Warp Speed, the public-private project to find a vaccine.

President Donald Trump (left) listens as Moncef Slaoui, a former GlaxoSmithKline executive, speaks about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 15.
President Donald Trump (left) listens as Moncef Slaoui, a former GlaxoSmithKline executive, speaks about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 15.Read moreAlex Brandon / AP

Glen Gaulton, a top virologist at Penn Medicine, was at breakfast last Friday when his old Harvard lab partner flashed onto the kitchen TV along with President Donald Trump.

There was Trump introducing Moncef M. Slaoui as “Operation Warp Speed’s chief scientist,” assigning the Gladwyne resident the high-stakes task of finding a coronavirus vaccine by the end of this year — a timeline viewed skeptically by many drugmakers and health-care experts.

Why, Jane Gaulton, Glen’s wife, asked, would Slaoui want that tough job?

“This is good news," replied Gaulton, who, as chief scientific officer at Penn’s medical school, connected often with Slaoui when he headed vaccines for GlaxoSmithKline.

“Moncef is not the type of guy to take a job like this if he didn’t think we could get something done,” Gaulton said.

Glaxo ranks with Merck, Novartis, and Sanofi as the world’s dominant vaccine makers. Slaoui “understands vaccines from the ground up, and all the different means vaccines can be developed: isolated proteins, modified virus, RNA, DNA,” Gaulton added.

"He had the personal traits to become a leader. He is extremely bright. A very good scientist. Not a guy you can BS. Not a guy you can run things by without a lot of scrutiny. Very thoughtful. Very quick on his feet. A good listener. Assembles information quickly. He has a tremendous passion for data science and bringing products forward.”

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Slaoui, 60, worked almost half his life at GlaxoSmithKline, joining the firm in 1988 and heading up its vaccines from 2008 until his retirement in 2017. He did not respond, through federal officials, to questions for this story.

Born in Morocco, educated in Belgium and the Ivy League, and a registered Democrat, Slaoui is “a world-renowned immunologist,” Trump declared, just the man to run Operation Warp Speed, the public-private project that the president compared to the Manhattan Project that built the atom bomb in World War II.

“One of the most respected men in the world in the production and, really, on the formulation of vaccines,” he added. “It’s great to have you on board.”

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, whose agency is funding the $10 billion vaccine drive, called Slaoui “arguably the world’s most experienced and successful vaccine developer."

On Slaoui’s watch, Glaxo produced more than a dozen new vaccines, including ones for malaria, cervical cancer, child gastroenteritis, and Ebola fever. Since leaving Glaxo, as a partner at Switzerland-based venture capital firm Medicxi, Slaoui had invested in a string of biotech start-ups, some of which are promoting vaccine candidates that Slaoui’s team would review.

He has remained a fixture on the vaccine global circuit, trading notes at conferences and elsewhere with academics such as Gaulton, government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and nonprofit powerhouses such as the Gates Foundation.

Slaoui called the president’s timeline “very credible” — if “extremely challenging” — and himself “really confident” that a host of official players, from the National Institutes of Health to the U.S. Army, along with the private sector, could "deliver a few hundred million doses by the end of the year.”

After his appointment, some critics and leading Democrats said that Slaoui’s investments raised ethical questions.

“Dr. Slaoui’s had an extensive web of financial interests,” faces “potential conflicts of interest,” and should “resign” all drug and biotech board seats, U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), and nine other Democratic colleagues urged in a letter to the White House. Slaoui should also “disclose” ties to firms making COVID-19-related products, and “divest” holdings in such firms, the senators wrote.

Advocacy groups Public Citizen and Lower Drug Prices Now sued to have Slaoui designated a government employee subject to disclosure laws, rather than a contractor. As a contractor being paid $1 for his services, Slaoui is exempt from rules that would require him to reveal all of his outside positions, stock holdings, and other potential conflicts. Nor is the contract position subject to the same conflict-of-interest laws that executive branch employees must follow.

After Trump named him vaccine czar on May 14, Slaoui quit the board of coronavirus-vaccine developer Moderna Inc., and said he would sell his stock options in the company, which have fluctuated in value between $10 million and $20 million as the shares whipsawed in recent weeks. Moderna, a firm worth nearly $30 billion though it has no product or sales, caused a stir earlier this month when it announced positive early tests of its COVID-19 vaccine on just eight volunteers. Investors later bid down the stock after the sketchy results were scrutinized.

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Slaoui remained on the board of Vaxcyte, a vaccine developer that on Monday said it plans to go public, disclosing that Medicxi, where Slaoui served as partner, owns shares worth $10 million. (Vaxcyte has not announced plans for a coronavirus therapy.)

Merck chief executive Ken Frazier on Wednesday called Trump’s and Slaoui’s goal to create a coronavirus vaccine by late 2020 “very aggressive,” adding he “would not want to hold” his company’s scientists to such a rapid rollout in an industry where safe vaccines typically take years to test before they are deemed safe and effective.

The next day Moderna shares fell 10 percent, amid similar drops at Novavax, Montgomery County-based Inovio and other which are small small vaccine developers.

Al Mauroni, director of the U.S. Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies, said in a review for that the Warp Speed management framework gives too much power to the military, which he said has a poor record for developing medicines, and not enough to the civilian CDC, National Institutes of Health, or Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which he says are better able to build vaccines.

After earning his doctorate in microbiology and immunology from the Free University of Brussels and postdoc projects at Tufts and Harvard, Slaoui chose corporate labs over academe. He joined his first wife, immunologist Claudine Bruck, in Philadelphia working at what was then SmithKline Beckman. The couple raised three sons, then separated; she is now chief executive at Prolifagen LLC.

In 2011, Slaoui married Kristen Belmonte, a Glaxo vice president, and bought a home in Gladwyne for $2.6 million, records show.

Slaoui moved into management at a time when drug companies had been shifting away from the costly in-house research approach, as at Merck. Glaxo in part outsourced key research, engaging Penn specialists to investigate new therapies.

As executive dean at Penn’s medical school, Gaulton worked closely again with Slaoui once GSK set up a 10-year research partnership with Penn.

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This corporate/academic phase did not endure. The Penn-Glaxo deal wasn’t renewed, and drug giants shifted toward the holding-company arrangement pioneered by Johnson & Johnson, in which profits from legacy products were tapped to buy competitors, whole business lines, and promising start-ups.

That made Slaoui a business strategist with billions to spend.

“He knew the big pharma industry had to change. He was progressive the way he thought about that,” Gaulton said. “He ushered them through massive change."

Not all Slaoui’s bold moves paid off. In 2007 he announced plans for a new Glaxo research center in Shanghai that he said would employ 1,000 scientists and cost $100 million. The deal raised eyebrows: China had a reputation for seeking control of private research. The Shanghai center shut down around the time he left Glaxo. China later convicted the company’s top China-based executive of bribery and fined the company nearly half a billion dollars. Slaoui was not accused of any wrongdoing.

In 2008 Slaoui oversaw the $700 million acquisition of Sirtis Pharmaceuticals, and in 2012 the $3 billion acquisition of Human Genome Sciences, both of which failed to deliver big profits from promised drugs.

In 2016 Glaxo named its new Slaoui Center for Vaccines Research at Rockville, Md., in his honor. Six months later he retired, with Glaxo stock worth $10 million. He became a partner with Medicxi, which has offices in Switzerland and London and whose investors include Glaxo and Novartis plus units of Johnson & Johnson and Google parent Alphabet.

He also joined the board of a string of venture-backed firms, including Moderna’s, a common step for venture capitalists.

Can such an industry veteran be impartial?

“Let’s face it. Anybody who’s going to be really good is going to be in the industry,” said Penn’s Gaulton. “It’s almost a given that top people will have relationships.”

“But profiting personally from your position is a different thing. Moncef did the right thing” when he pledged to exit his vaccine-developer relationships.

And is a year-end vaccine really possible? Gaulton says it’s less unlikely than it used to be.

By his account, manufacturing and packaging have lately grown rapid enough to make it fast and safe to put shots on the street once animal and human testing are complete. Congress has also approved funding to permit vaccine manufacturers to conduct key tests all at once, rather than spreading them out in sequence over months.

Trump said he expected Slaoui’s effort to pick at least 14 leading candidates from among the 100-plus now seeking a vaccine. He said once the scientists have made a vaccine, he will find a way to distribute it quickly, perhaps even using the military.

”Warp Speed, Trump said in the Rose Garden, “better come up with a good vaccine because we’re ready to deliver it.”

And if not, Trump added, he plans to “reopen the country” even without a coronavirus vaccine.

(Includes material added after print publication)