Critical media reporting about Operation Warp Speed, the federal government's effort to speed development of drugs, vaccines and other measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic, is distracting people working on the project, its chief adviser says.
Former pharma executive Dr. Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to Operation Warp Speed, complained on a US Health and Human Services Department podcast that he never expected to encounter what he considers unfavorable media coverage.
"I'm amazed that I'm being attacked on a personal basis in a way that, frankly, distracts my energy and energy of all the teams that we're working together with to deliver, and therefore decreases our chances or the speed with which we try to help humanity and the country resolve and address this issue," Slaoui said on the podcast, released on Friday.
Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS and host of the podcast, started out inviting listeners to "enjoy my learning curve as much as I'm enjoying it."
"I came to this job without a real deep knowledge of health care," Caputo added.
Then Caputo asked Slaoui about his career and his appointment to head Operation Warp Speed. "And because this is the Trump administration, you don't realize it, I guess, maybe when you were offered the position, but part of the deal is you go ahead and you fasten a target on your back, don't you?" he asked.
"Yes. Honestly, I think I was naïve when I made the decision," answered Slaoui, who spent 30 years at drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, including as chairman of global vaccines. After leaving Glaxo, Slaoui has worked with European venture capital firm Medicxi and been a board member of companies including vaccine developer Moderna, Intellia Therapeutics, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, Swiss biotechnology and chemicals firm Lonza group, among others.
"I thought that, you know, the press in particular was informing, but I [am] now convinced factually that the press has only one objective, which is to shape opinions and to distort information in a way that allows [them] to shape an opinion," Slaoui added. "And I find that unethical, extremely disappointing. And I really hope society will drive towards changing that back to more normalcy."
Nonetheless, Caputo and Slaoui also said they rely on media reports.
"It's much, much harder to help somebody who's already ill because they're so, as you can read in the newspapers or listen in the media, the manifestations of this disease are many, many different diseases because they depend on your health status to start with," Slaoui said.
Caputo asked about reports that Slaoui, who has held shares in companies being funded by the government effort he now heads, might make money from the companies he is in now a position to promote. Federal government employees are generally required to divest themselves of any holdings they might be in a position to regulate or influence.
"I'm convinced that the reporters don't want a vaccine, sir," Caputo said. Yet he said stories appear "from reporters who have trouble counting change, who are trying to count your wealth, who don't acknowledge the fact that you have accepted immense losses financially in order to take this job that pays you $1, that keeps you away from your family, that keeps you up all day long."
Slaoui indicated he continues to refuse to sell his shares in Glaxo.
"Any accretion in value of everything I own that has anything to do with Covid, which is my GlaxoSmithKline shares, any accretion in value by the end of my mission will look -- if there has been increasing value with it -- I'll sell those shares, and I'll give that incremental value to the NIH for research," Slaoui said.
Operation Warp Speed awarded Glaxo and its partner Sanofi Pasteur $2.1 billion last week to fund a joint vaccine effort -- the largest vaccine award it has made yet.