The chief adviser overseeing President Donald Trump's task force charged with spearheading the U.S. government's Covid-19 vaccine and treatment effort has refused to divest his shares in pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, where he previously worked.
As the New York Times reported Wednesday, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, who was appointed to lead Operation Warp Speed last week, holds nearly $10 million in stock at the company where he led the vaccine division until his retirement in 2017. Slaoui still owns an unknown number of shares at GSK, where he held about 240,000 shares and share equivalents when he left the company.
GSK is one of several pharmaceutical companies researching potential vaccines for the coronavirus.
Slaoui reportedly told the Trump administration that he would not sell his GSK shares.
"I have worked for 29 years for GSK," Slaoui told the Times. "I have never sold a single share of any company in my life. This is my retirement. What I said regarding the GSK shares, I said I cannot take the job if I have to sell them."
Critics charge Slaoui's interest in GSK represents just one of his conflicts as he leads a task force which will decide which vaccine candidates should receive financial backing.
The doctor has retained his partnership in the venture capital firm Medicxi, which has investments in a number of companies researching vaccines and treatments.
Under Slaoui's arrangement with the Trump administration, he is working on Operation Warp Speed as a contractor rather than a federal employee, shielding him from conflict of interest laws and financial disclosure rules—a deal the government watchdog Citizens of Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) called "absurd."
"It allows for no public scrutiny of his conflicts of interest," chief ethics counsel Virginia Canter told the Times. "If he retains stock in companies that are investing in the development of a vaccine, and he's involved in overseeing this process to select the safest vaccine to combat Covid-19, regardless of how wonderful a person he is, we can't be confident of the integrity of any process in which he is involved."
Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called on Slaoui to "immediately divest" his financial interests in Moderna, another pharmaceutical company researching a vaccine. When Slaoui accepted his new position, he still held stock options in the company, amounting to what Warren called "a huge conflict of interest."
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. https://t.co/8IWLxVL7la
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) May 15, 2020
Slaoui did not sell those shares until this Tuesday, a day after Moderna's stock skyrocketed when the company released partial data from an early vaccine trial, which showed eight out of 45 test subjects had developed Covid-19 immunity.
Slaoui's stock options increased by more than $2 million after the announcement; the Trump administration said he was planning to donate the increased value to cancer research.
Despite Moderna's rising stock during its vaccine trial demonstrating how Slaoui's involvement in the task force creates conflicts for the doctor, the White House told the Times it had "reviewed Dr. Slaoui's affiliations with several companies and concluded in several instances that there were no conflicts because his advisory roles were unrelated to coronavirus research or treatments."
On Thursday, former Office of Government Ethics director Walter Shaub tweeted that the arrangement allowing Slaoui to work as a contractor while overseeing government employees working on Operation Warp Speed is a "sham."
You can't have a contractor supervising government officials. If that's what's happening, the contract is a sham. It would make him a special government employee subject to the criminal conflict of interest law. Congress needs to investigate!https://t.co/L9flmh4sTx
— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) May 21, 2020
Slaoui's position on the task force "would make him a special government employee subject to the criminal conflict of interest law," wrote Shaub. "Congress needs to investigate!"