HHS Feels Heat on Vaccine Development Conflicts of Interest

Public Citizen, Lower Drug Prices Now File New Complaints to Ensure Vaccine Czar Is Subject to Ethics Rules

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Public Citizen and Lower Drug Prices Now today filed two additional ethics complaints [here and here] regarding COVID-19 vaccine czar Dr. Moncef Slaoui, following an initial complaint to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in May that resulted in no action.

The groups said earlier this year that Slaoui, President Donald Trump’s appointed co-leader of Operation Warp Speed, should be classified as a government employee, which would make him subject to the conflict of interest code and disclosure requirements – particularly because of his role in directing the largest vaccine contract to date to Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a pharmaceutical company in which he continues to hold significant investments.

The Inspector General’s office dismissed the complaint by Public Citizen and Lower Drug Prices Now and gave the green light for Slaoui to financially benefit from government contracts that he would help award. After highly-critical media reports on this decision, the OIG sent another response last week suggesting that the organizations submit complaints to HHS and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) regarding Slaoui’s status as a private contractor, which currently allows him to evade federal ethics rules.

“I write to clarify the OIG response in light of the Washington Post article and others that followed,” wrote Robert DeConti, assistant inspector general for legal affairs at the HHS inspector general, in his latest response to Public Citizen and Lower Drug Prices Now. “If you believe that Dr. Slaoui was improperly classified as a contractor rather than an employee, you may want to raise such concerns to either the Department’s Office of Human Resources or the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. To the extent that you believe Dr. Slaoui was improperly allowed to maintain investments that create a conflict of interest with his HHS work, you should contact either the Ethics Division of the Department’s Office of General Counsel or the Office of Government Ethics.”

“This is clearly the government’s attempt to smooth over its inaction regarding Slaoui’s conflicts of interest. But while the OIG might have thought it would be good PR to clarify its response, it simply shows that they are doing nothing about it but shuffling paperwork around,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “It is dangerous to have someone in a position of power that can dictate vaccine development terms towards the outcome in which they, their family and friends reap personal profit, with no disclosure whatsoever. Ethics matter, especially when so many lives are at stake.”

“Anyone responsible for directing billions of our taxpayer dollars in the midst of a public health crisis when millions of people’s lives are at risk should be accountable to the public, plain and simple,” said Margarida Jorge, national campaign director for Lower Drug Prices Now.” In the last two weeks, Operation Warp Speed has moved more massive government funding to drug corporations in which Mr. Slaoui has undisclosed financial interests yet rather than take immediate action to increase transparency and resolve any potential ethical conflict of interest, government officials are making excuses and undermining the public’s confidence. HHS and OPM should take responsibility for ensuring key decision-makers in charge of providing the nation with the medicines we need to beat COVID-19 are subject to the same basic ethical standards and rules that all other government employees meet.”

The new complaint to the OIG asks whether Slaoui should be classified as a regular government employee, given the agency’s original dismissal of the petition to classify him as a special government employee. In accordance with the second response from OIG, Public Citizen and Lower Drug Prices Now also sent the complaint to the HHS secretary and the director of OPM, asking them to reclassify Slaoui as a government employee.

Read the complaints here and here.