Vaccine Czar Should Be Subject to Conflict of Interest Code, Groups Say in Ethics Complaint
Co-Leader of the Administration’s Critical Vaccine Program Appears to Have Extensive Web of Conflicting Financial Interests
WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Donald Trump’s vaccine czar – who has extensive ties to the pharmaceutical industry – should be subject to conflict of interest and disclosure rules, Public Citizen and Lower Drug Prices Now said in a complaint filed today.
In the complaint, filed with the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), the groups said that Moncef Slaoui, Trump’s appointed co-leader of Operation Warp Speed, should be classified as a special government employee (SGE), which would make him subject to the conflict of interest code and disclosure requirements.
Operation Warp Speed is the new federal program designed to oversee and coordinate the development, financing and distribution of treatments and vaccines to address the coronavirus pandemic. Slaoui joins Gen. Gustave Perna as its chief scientist and co-leader. Even though Warp Speed is a government program, Slaoui has been brought onboard as a private contractor, which exempts him from the conflict of interest and transparency requirements that apply to government employees.
But Slaoui’s ties to the industry are ripe for abuse, the groups said.
“Slaoui is a venture capitalist in the pharmaceutical industry who personally stands to make a fortune from determining winners and losers in the race to develop a vaccine, yet he is exempt from ethics laws that prevent self-dealing,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “It is deeply troubling that Trump has appointed a pharmaceutical executive and private contractor to help award these massive and critical government contracts.”
Just days into his new role, news broke that Slaoui was a major shareholder in Moderna, a drug corporation that received $483 million from federal government agencies to develop a vaccine. Moderna’s stock surge – a product of news reports that the company’s clinical trials on a COVID-19 medicine were yielding promising results – increased Slaoui’s stock value by $2.4 million. He has since sold those holdings, but it is not clear what other conflicts of interest remain in his portfolio since there are no requirements for him to disclose them. He retains $10 million in GlaxoSmithKline stock and is a partner in a firm, Medicxi, that invests in biotech companies, some of which are also engaged in developing COVID-19 medicines.
Generally, people who are appointed to lead government programs or instruct other government employees, and who are supervised by senior government officials, are classified as government employees subject to conflict of interest laws and disclosure requirements. This is to ensure that employees or agents working on the government’s behalf serve the public interest.
A “special government employee” designation allows the federal government to employ some people on a temporary basis, with or without compensation, subject to less stringent ethics requirements. Nevertheless, the conflict of interest code and disclosure requirements still apply to SGEs.
“Slaoui’s blatant ties to Big Pharma, including the very drug corporations he’s funneling money to, should make even the Trump administration blush,” said Margarida Jorge, campaign director of Lower Drug Prices Now. “The Trump administration continues to put corporate cronyism and profits for pharmaceutical executives ahead of public health. To guarantee affordable medicines for COVID-19, Congress must block monopoly control over prices and pass safeguards that prevent corporations and shareholders from profiteering off the pandemic.”
The group’s letter reads, “There is far too much at stake, in terms of both the public’s health and the scope of public expenditures in response to the pandemic, to allow any person, including Moncef Slaoui, to assume a leadership position in the war against the pandemic without complying to the conflict of interest code and disclosure requirements.”
The letter concludes: “Public Citizen and Lower Drug Prices Now request that the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the Office of Government Ethics, determine whether Slaoui is in fact serving in the capacity of a special government employee and should resolve his conflicts of interest and secrecy surrounding his financial interests.”
The complaint is available here.