Profile: Dr. Moncef Slaoui, America’s Arab ‘Coronavirus vaccine czar’

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President Donald Trump listens as Dr. Moncef Slaoui speaks about coronavirus vaccine development in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 15, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 12 August 2020

Profile: Dr. Moncef Slaoui, America’s Arab ‘Coronavirus vaccine czar’

  • Moroccan-born Belgian-American researcher named chief scientist of crash vaccine development program
  • Slaoui’s appointment draws criticism from Democratic opponents of Trump and praise from Arab American

CHICAGO: Facing criticism over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, US President Donald Trump has tapped one of the Arab American community’s brightest medical minds to find a treatment for the infection that has wreaked global havoc since December.

Dr. Moncef Mohamed Slaoui, a Moroccan-born Belgian-American scientist who has led the field in fighting viruses and was involved in the development of a vaccine against Ebola, will head a new White House initiative called “Operation Warp Speed” (OWS).

As of Tuesday, COVID-19 had claimed more than 320,000 lives and infected more than 4 million people around the world, nearly one third of them in the US.

While naming Slaoui chief scientist of the vaccine effort, Trump said that OWS would help to produce 300 million doses of a vaccine by the end of the year, as well as speed up development by others.

Slaoui, 60, said that he expected to have a COVID-19 vaccine available by the end of the year. “I believe they are very credible. I also believe they are extremely challenging,” he said of efforts to achieve this goal.

Slaoui’s appointment was criticized by Democrats and sections of the news media, while praise came mainly from Arab Americans and those involved in Middle East issues.

Among them was New York-based human-rights lawyer and national security analyst Irina Tsukerman, who wrote: “Great to see growing cooperation with Morocco & Moroccans!”

In comments to Arab News, several Arab Americans said that Slaoui’s appointment would enhance the public image of the community, particularly those in the medical profession.

“It’s good to put somebody who has experience in this field to work on the vaccine, which is where his experience is,” said Syrian-born American Dr. Firas Badin (left), medical director for oncology research at Baptist Health System in Kentucky.

“It speaks for us as first- and second-generation Arab Americans and is a good reflection of the success Arab Americans have had in this country.

“It also reflects on how much Arab Americans put into this country and our contributions. Arab Americans are very educated and we can do so much to help here.

“Dr. Slaoui is a good example of this hard work and how much he has achieved.”

Badin serves on the National COVID-19 Committee created by ArabAmerica.com.

He is also the founder of the Syrian American Cancer Center, a not-for-profit that helps patients with cancer in war-torn Syria.

Badin’s view was seconded by Dr. Rouba Ali-Fehmi (left), who served from 2018-2019 as president of the National Arab American Medical Association (NAAMA).

Describing Slaoui as an excellent choice, she said that his elevation highlights the contribution of Arab American doctors.

“He has a great background in regards to developing vaccination and is additionally very qualified in molecular biology and immunology,” said Ali-Fehmi, the current chairperson of NAAMA NextGen, the branch for students and young professionals in the medical fields.

While expressing pride in Slaoui’s Arab heritage, she said that “all physicians and health care workers play an important role on the front line taking care of patients regardless of race, ethnicity or religion.”

“We are in a challenging and unprecedented time with great ramifications for everyone’s personal health,” Ali-Fehmi said. “Make sure to be proactive in taking care of yourself, family and community.”

The polarized debate over Slaoui’s appointment, however, has shown that not even a deadly pandemic can bring America’s warring red-blue camps together behind a Manhattan project-like effort.

Critics of the appointment made the argument that as a veteran pharmaceutical industry leader and investor, Slaoui and his associates stand to profit from his work.

“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,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential contender who dropped out of the race to support Trump’s rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, wrote on Twitter.

Warren said that she introduced a bill specifically targeting “coronavirus corruption” to prevent White House officials working on the pandemic to profit from the COVID-19 outbreak.

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“My new bill to would require White House officials working on the pandemic recovery to disclose their holdings and prevent them from working on COVID-19 matters that could influence their financial interests. Congress must step up,” Warren said on Twitter following Slaoui’s appointment.

In a tweet, Jennifer Jacobs, a Bloomberg reporter who wrote a story on Slaoui’s appointment, said: “New coronavirus vaccine czar, Moncef Slaoui, sits on boards of several co’s (companies) involved in vaccine chase, presenting potential conflict of interest — Moderna, one of lead US companies developing a vaccine; plus Lonza, SutroVax.”

In a recent story, Politico, the liberal-leaning online news website, cited a US pharma industry veteran as saying that Slaoui oversaw “three of the worst deals in drug industry history” because none generated much reward for GSK.

The deals included its 2008 purchase of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, sale of its entire oncology business to Novartis and the $3 billion acquisition of Human Genome Sciences in 2012.

Not in question, though, are the credentials of the “coronavirus czar.”

Slaoui earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology and immunology from the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, and completed his postdoctoral studies at Harvard Medical School and Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston.

In addition to heading up vaccines research as chairman at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a multinational pharmaceutical company based in London, Slaoui pioneered a new field in fighting diseases and viruses that aims to create bioelectronic medicines.

Slaoui oversaw development of vaccines protecting against gastroenteritis in infants (Rotarix), pneumococcal infections (Synflorix) and cervical cancer (Cervarix).

In 2015 Slaoui won European approval for the world’s first malaria vaccine (Mosquirix).

In a GSK video in 2016, Slaoui said: “Bioelectrical medicines, medicines that use electrical language in our bodies to change our ills, have the potential to be the next breakthrough medicines that will change a life of patients with chronic diseases like diabetes, asthma or arthritis.”

“We are working very hard with scientists across the world to integrate sciences such as biological sciences and medical sciences, or electrical engineering and material sciences to discover such bioelectrical medicines which we hope will help us understand, read and write the electrical language of our body and hence change diseases.”

When he retired from GSK in 2017, the drug maker announced it was developing a vaccine to fight Ebola, one of the most dreaded and contagious viruses on the planet.

Moderna, on whose board Slaoui served until he resigned following the White House appointment, issued a statement praising his selection.

It also reflects on how much Arab Americans put into this country and our contributions. Arab Americans are very educated and we can do so much to help here. Dr. Slaoui is a good example of this hard work and how much he has achieved.

Dr. Firas Badin

“I would like to thank Moncef for his critical insights and three years of service on the Moderna Board,” said Dr. Noubar Afeyan, co-founder and chairman of Moderna and CEO of Flagship Pioneering.

“Moncef’s extensive vaccine and therapeutic development guidance were important as we continue to advance Moderna’s mRNA platform. We wish him well in this new role.”

Moderna also announced that Slaoui would divest himself of all equity interest in the company so there would be no conflict of interest as its vaccine work moves forward. 

The Associated Press news agency has reported that Slaoui will take no salary for his work as “coronavirus czar.”

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@rayhanania

Decoder

What is OWS?

It stands for Operation Warp Speed, an initiative launched recently by the US government to find a treatment for the COVID-19. It is led by Dr. Moncef Mohamed Slaoui, a Moroccan-born Belgian-American scientist who has extensive experience in fighting viruses and was involved in the development of a vaccine against Ebola.


Afghan govt. vows to probe civilian deaths in Kunduz airstrike

Updated 20 September 2020

Afghan govt. vows to probe civilian deaths in Kunduz airstrike

  • There have been conflicting reports from lawmakers and residents about number of fatalities
  • Taliban says none of its fighters killed in attack

KABUL: Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry pledged on Sunday to probe “allegations” of at least 12 civilians being killed in an airstrike targeting Taliban fighters in the northern Kunduz province a day earlier.
The pledge followed inconsistencies about the number of casualties, with the insurgent group saying that none of its men had died in the attack.
“The Taliban were the target, and 30 of them were killed. Initial reports indicate no harm was inflicted upon civilians, but we are probing reports by locals about civilian casualties. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces take allegations of civilian harm seriously, and these claims will be investigated,” Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the defense ministry in Kabul, told Arab News.
He added that the ministry would “share any details” about civilian casualties “once the probe is over.”
If confirmed, Saturday’s airstrike in the Khan Abad district, which lies nearly 350 km from Kabul and is mostly controlled by the Taliban, will be the latest in a series of air raids killing civilians in several parts of the country.
It follows a week after crucial intra-Afghan talks between the government and Taliban officials began in Doha, Qatar on Saturday, to end the protracted war and plan a roadmap for peace in Afghanistan.
There were conflicting accounts from civilians and lawmakers in the area about the incident, with two provincial council members, Ghulam Rabbani Rabbani and Sayed Yusuf, saying that at least 12 civilians had died in Saturday’s air raid.
“Since the area is under Taliban’s control, we have not been able to find out exactly how the civilians were killed,” Rabbani told Arab News.
Meanwhile, Nilofar Jalali, a legislator from Kunduz, offered another version of the attack, which she said “hit a residential area before sunrise when people were still in their bed.”
“Children and women are among the dead, and 18 civilians have also been wounded. I informed the defense minister about it; he said he will check and get back to me, but has not,” she told Arab News. However, Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, denied the reports in a statement on Sunday, saying that “no fighter of the group was killed,” before placing the number of civilian deaths at 23.
Kunduz and other parts of the country have witnessed an escalation in attacks by both the government and the Taliban in recent weeks, despite their negotiators participating in the Qatar talks which are part of a US-facilitated process following 19 years of conflict in the country — Washington’s longest war in history.
The Qatar discussions are based on a historic accord signed between Washington and the Taliban in February this year which, among other things, paves the way for the complete withdrawal of US-led troops from the country by next spring, in return for a pledge from the Taliban not to allow use Afghanistan to harm any country’s, including US, interests.
Kabul’s negotiators in Qatar are pushing the Taliban to declare a cease-fire, while the Taliban say it can be included in the agenda and that both sides must first ascertain “the real cause” of the war.
Some analysts believe that while delegates of the parties are struggling to agree over the mechanism and agenda of the talks in Qatar, their fighters in Afghanistan are “focusing on military tactics to capture grounds” so that they can use it as a “bargaining chip” at the negotiation table.
“Both sides think that if they have more territory then they can argue their case from a position of strength during the talks and use it as leverage,” Shafiq Haqpal, an analyst and a former university teacher, told Arab News.
“The sides have not yet agreed on the mechanism of the talks despite the Qatar talks, which began on the 12th of September. So, this is an indication that things are not going the right way politically, and both sides are trying their luck on the battlefield here.”