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

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)
Profile: Dr. Moncef Slaoui, America’s Arab ‘Coronavirus vaccine czar’
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Updated 12 August 2020

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

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.


Kremlin calls NYT report on planned US cyberstrikes on Russia ‘alarming’

Kremlin calls NYT report on planned US cyberstrikes on Russia ‘alarming’
Updated 22 min 19 sec ago

Kremlin calls NYT report on planned US cyberstrikes on Russia ‘alarming’

Kremlin calls NYT report on planned US cyberstrikes on Russia ‘alarming’
  • The report said the US was planning a series of covert counterstrikes on Russian networks

MOSCOW: The Kremlin on Tuesday said it was alarmed by a report in the New York Times that said the United States was planning a series of covert counterstrikes on Russian networks, saying such strikes would amount to cyber crimes.
The report, on March 7, said the United States was planning a series of covert counterstrikes on Russian networks in response to the hacking of SolarWinds software that US officials say was conduced by Russia, something Moscow denies.
“This is alarming information,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “This would be pure international cyber crime.”


Academic held in Iran for two years says imprisonment pushed her to brink of suicide

Academic held in Iran for two years says imprisonment pushed her to brink of suicide
Updated 55 min 9 sec ago

Academic held in Iran for two years says imprisonment pushed her to brink of suicide

Academic held in Iran for two years says imprisonment pushed her to brink of suicide

CANBERRA: A British-Australian academic who spent two years detained in Iran said on Tuesday she was kept in solitary confinement for seven months, in what she described as "psychological torture" that left her contemplating suicide.
Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was detained in Iran in 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in prison on espionage charges, was released late last year in exchange for three Iranians who had been detained abroad.
Speaking for the first time publicly, Moore-Gilbert said she was kept in a 4 square meter cell with only a telephone to communicate with prison guards.
"You go completely insane. It is so damaging. I felt physical pain," Moore-Gilbert told Sky News Australia.
Moore-Gilbert, a specialist in Middle East politics at the University of Melbourne, said her mental health deteriorated after two weeks.
"I thought if I could, I would kill myself."
After nine months imprisonment, Moore-Gilbert was sentenced to 10 years in prison, which she sought to oppose through a series of hunger strikes.
In her most daring opposition, however, Moore-Gilbert said she once attempted to escape.
"One day I was just like, ‘You know what? I’m going to do it. I have nothing to lose’," Moore-Gilbert told Sky News.
"There were spikes on part of the wall, so I just took some socks with me and put them over my hands and then grabbed onto them, hoping they weren’t too sharp."
Once on the roof of the prison, Moore-Gilbert said she could have scaled down the walls and made a run for a nearby town. However, she said she decided not to proceed as she was in a prison uniform, didn't speak the local language and feared the consequences of being caught.
Eventually she was released in a prisoner swap and back in Australia, Moore-Gilbert said she is focused on her recovery.


Families cry foul over Myanmar’s crackdown

Families cry foul over Myanmar’s crackdown
Updated 09 March 2021

Families cry foul over Myanmar’s crackdown

Families cry foul over Myanmar’s crackdown
  • Activists accuse security forces of detaining family members of suspects

YANGON: Protests erupted in several cities across Myanmar on Sunday, with several more planned for today, after an official from the party of deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi died overnight after “fainting” in police custody.

The family of Khin Maung Latt, a 58-year-old Muslim man from Yangon, however, rejected the claims saying that he was healthy “with no injuries at all” when police detained him on Saturday night.

“We were informed by the police on Sunday morning that he had died after fainting and that the body was being kept at a military hospital in Yangon,” one of Latt’s relatives, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, told Arab News.

Soon, Family members, accompanied by a lawyer and community leader, went to the hospital and found Latt’s head “covered”
in blood.

“His body had multiple injuries, especially the head. He was healthy and had no injuries at all when soldiers took him” she said.

Latt, a member of the ruling National League for Democracy party (NLD), was among several detained by police who, reinforced by soldiers, moved throughout Yangon, firing shots and arresting dissidents.

Anti-military protests reached fever pitch after the deaths of dozens of protesters, with rally organizers saying “security forces were intent on breaking the back of the anti-coup movement with wanton violence and sheer brutality.”

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), at least 50 people have died during the security forces’ recent crackdown, with 1,790 arrested, charged or sentenced during the anti-coup movement, which began on Feb. 1.

While the number of detained persons remains unknown, it included Latt, other protest leaders, striking government staff and members of vigilante groups guarding neighborhoods.

AAPP spokesperson Tun Kyi, who helped Latt’s family with the funeral process, said that it was “possible” that Latt’s death was as a result of torture.

“Citing the injuries on his body, he was beaten and tortured,” Kyi told Arab News

“Troops took him alive and returned the dead body. This is the democracy promised by the military dictatorship,” he added.

Myanmar has been in a state of unrest for more than a month after military leaders seized power, overthrowing the civilian government led by Suu Kyi.

The coup followed a landslide win by  the  NLD in the November general election, but the army rejected the results, citing poll irregularities and fraud.

During the takeover, the military detained key government leaders — including Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and several prominent activists — and declared a state of emergency, along with an announcement that the country would be under military rule for at least a year.

Myanmar has witnessed widespread protests ever since, with thousands ignoring a ban on public gatherings.

Yangon, the country’s largest city, witnessed one of the deadliest incidents last week after security forces opened fire on the mostly peaceful protesters in the North Okalapa township’s outskirts, killing at least 38, according to a UN report.

Witnesses said that after increasing their crackdown on anti-coup protesters, security forces were escalating late-night raids in cities and towns across the country as well.

Tun Kyi said security forces were “acting lawlessly” during the crackdown and night raids, adding that in many cases, “when the targeted persons could not be found, they detained family members instead.

“They (security forces) took family members as hostages, looted and destroyed the private properties. They are acting like terrorists,” he added.

Latt served as a campaign leader for Sithu Maung, one of the NLD’s two Muslim lawmakers, who contested and won a seat in the lower house of Parliament representing Yangon’s Pabedan township.

His father, Peter, a former political prisoner and member of the NLD party in Yangon’s Hlaing township, was detained on Sunday night during a raid.

“They took my father hostage,” said Maung, who was issued an arrest warrant by the junta for his involvement in the Committee Representing Phyidaungsu Hluttaw which ousted lawmakers formed to represent the country’s Parliament after the Feb. 1 military coup.

He expressed grave concern over his father’s situation, especially after Khin Maung Latt’s death. 

“Khin Maung Latt was like my uncle. Now he has died of torture during overnight detention, so I am greatly concerned (that something) similar will happen to my father,” he told Arab News over the phone from a safe place on Monday.

“The junta is using all possible means to make people bow to them, but we will never let it happen. They have a gun; we have unity,” he said.

Maung added that the junta was responding to the opposition movement with “panic” because “they know they are going to lose anyway.

“After more than one month of the coup, it has not been recognized by most foreign countries while facing opposition from all sectors in the country. Its administrative mechanism has not functioned yet due to the non-recognizing and non-participation of the government staff and people,” he said.

Despite the deadliest crackdown by security forces, the anti-coup movement is gaining momentum across the country.

In Yangon, tensions were high after anti-coup protesters regrouped after being forcefully dispersed by stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and, eventually, live ammunition.

Meanwhile, the Hlaing Thar Yar township of Yangon, where most of the areas garment factories are located, has yet to experience violence despite daily protests by thousands of people, mostly industrial workers.

“The forces mainly focus on cracking down on the protests in other townships, but we anticipate our turn would come soon,” Thar Zaw, an activist and a protest leader, told Arab News.

Striking workers, who had previously joined the demonstration in major protest sites across Yangon, including those stationed in Hlaing Thar Yar, said they were “prepared to defend themselves against security forces” with makeshift barricades on the streets.

“The protests here are even bigger now,” Thar Zaw told Arab News.

The country’s biggest trade unions have also called for an extended, nationwide strike until civilian rule is restored.

Moe Sandar Myint, founder of the Federation of General Worker Myanmar, said the garment sector was “already in danger since the coup.

“As long as the junta rules the country, there is no worker rights. So we, garment workers and industrial workers would continue the movement against the junta,” she told Arab News.

Myint has been in hiding since Feb. 6 after organizing and participating in an anti-coup rally in Yangon, the first mass protest since the coup took place.

“We are determined to fight till the end,” she said.


Hungary closes stores, schools to curb surge due to variants

Hungary closes stores, schools to curb surge due to variants
Updated 09 March 2021

Hungary closes stores, schools to curb surge due to variants

Hungary closes stores, schools to curb surge due to variants
  • The number of patients on ventilators in Hungarian hospitals has more than doubled in the last two weeks

BUDAPEST: Hungarians on Monday awoke to a new round of strict lockdown measures aimed at slowing a record-breaking wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths that are among the worst in the world.

A rapid rise in pandemic indicators since early February prompted Hungary’s government to announce the new restrictions, including closing most stores for two weeks and kindergartens and primary schools until April 7. Most services are also required to cease operations, and the government urged businesses to allow employees to work from home. Grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and tobacconists can stay open.

Hungary’s high schools have been remote learning since November and its bars, restaurants and gyms have been closed since then as well.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has warned that the strain on the country’s hospitals will soon surpass any other period in Hungary since the pandemic began, and that failing to impose harsher restrictions now would result in a “tragedy.”

“The next two weeks will be difficult ... but if we want to open by Easter, we’ve got to close down,” Orban said Friday on a Facebook video.

The number of patients on ventilators in Hungarian hospitals has more than doubled in the last two weeks, with 806 patients on Monday compared to the previous peak of 674 in early December.

Deaths have also risen sharply. With nearly 16,000 confirmed deaths in a country of fewer than 10 million, Hungary has the 8th worst death rate per 1 million inhabitants in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of COVID-19 patients being treated in hospitals is also likely to break its previous record on Tuesday.

“We can see that the third wave is spreading very forcefully, mainly due to (virus) variants,” Hungary’s chief medical officer Cecilia Muller said Sunday. “We can’t do anything else now but break the
chain of infections.”

The new restrictions came as many Hungarian businesses were already struggling to make ends meet as shoppers stayed at home amid the surging cases. Zoltan Suto, the founder and owner of Hungarian fashion brand Griff Collection, said revenues were down 70 percent  through the winter thanks to cautious consumers avoiding crowds at shopping malls.

“I can’t pay rent. I can’t pay salaries or social contributions, not to mention the taxes,” Suto said, adding that a 50 percent  commercial tax break offered by the government meant little in the absence of revenues.

Last year’s pandemic-induced economic recession, which saw a 5.1 percent  decrease in Hungary’s GDP, led to the shuttering of five of Griff Collection’s 10 stores in Hungary, which employ around 80 people. Suto says his business suffered a loss of 200-300 million Hungarian forints ($645,000-$968,000) in 2020, and that the crisis will only deepen if the two-week closure that begins Monday is extended further.

Such economic pain has made Hungary’s government, which is facing an election next year, reluctant until now to introduce restrictions on businesses, even as COVID-19 cases and deaths have skyrocketed since early February.

Many parents scrambled over the weekend to alter work schedules and arrange for childcare, including Gyongyver and Szilard Brasnyo, a couple in Budapest who have two young daughters.

“We are lucky, my parents are coming over to help us out with the kids,” said Gyongyver, adding that her parents live in Serbia, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe, and have already received two vaccine shots.

Szilard, who works from home, said they felt “exhausted” after a year of raising the children during a pandemic. But he was optimistic that Hungary’s ambitious vaccination program — which has given more than 1 million Hungarians a vaccine shot, the second-highest vaccination rate in the 27-nation European Union — would soon bring life back to normal.

Hungary has obtained vaccines from Russia and China as well as those approved by the EU.

“We’re really looking forward to having a much safer environment for all of us,” Szilard said.


Faith communities urged to work together to protect women

Faith communities urged to work together to protect women
Updated 09 March 2021

Faith communities urged to work together to protect women

Faith communities urged to work together to protect women
  • ‘Pandemic has brought forth gender-based violence statistical explosion,’ UN official says at forum attended by Arab News

LONDON: Speakers at the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity’s (HCHF) Women’s 2021 Forum, attended by Arab News, have urged religious communities to work together in tackling gender violence and the coronavirus pandemic.

This came in the wake of the pope’s visit to Iraq to meet Christians and leaders of other faiths, including top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, which several speakers highlighted as an example of the power of cooperation.

Irina Bokova, former director-general of UNESCO, recalled that the HCHF’s establishment came after the signing of a document of human fraternity by the pope and Egypt’s Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayeb in 2019, which urged “reconciliation of all the world’s citizens for the sake of universal peace.”

Azza Karam, senior advisor on culture at the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), called the document “historic in every possible sense,” on account of it being a “commitment from two leading men of two of the largest religious establishments in the world. The fact that they can reiterate these points in a document in which they commit to the fraternity of humanity in and of itself is a remarkably valuable point.”

Karam, though, said a growing movement toward greater religious tolerance and cooperation at higher levels had been curtailed by COVID-19.

“What we see is (an) epidemic of gender-based violence that has taken (on) massive proportions, because we’re talking about a shrinking civil society space (where) those who help those gender-based violence survivors are civic institutions, before the governmental ones step in,” she added.

Karam said problems remain in responding to crises, from the pandemic to gender-based violence, because of a lack of coordination between secular and religious institutions, as well as between organizations belonging to different faiths.

“Civil society institutions are our future. Secular and religious civil spaces often operate in distinction from one other. There are very rare moments when we see a society convene the religious and the secular. What COVID-19 has helped us do is force us to look beyond the parameters and the boundaries of our traditional partnerships,” she added.

“We can’t afford to let the religions respond to humanitarian emergencies separately. We must encourage and support them to work together with one another, and to work with the secular institutions.”

UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem agreed, raising the specter of gender-based violence as an area where religious communities need to do more to help women, especially with rates of violence heightened by the circumstances caused by the pandemic.

“People of faith are called to uphold the values the HCHF represents. My concern is to make clear — there’s a pandemic within a pandemic that began ages and millennia ago. The respect and value of women must start with the girl child who must be encouraged to understand that she is the equal of everyone on the planet, and that her aspirations are important,” she said.

“This pandemic has brought forth a gender-based violence statistical explosion, but long before the pandemic, the truth is that on average one in three females experienced some form of gender-based violence or harassment during her lifetime,” she added.

“The UN … is working deeply with governments … to support responses. The increasing rates of domestic violence have been a challenge, calling on all of us to adapt very quickly,” Kanem said.

“You can imagine if someone is in lockdown, locked in with an abusive partner, the ability to contact someone, have someone visit, have a hotline, can be lifesaving. We’re paying attention to the prevention of violence, and in this sense I think the community of faith has the responsibility to de-stigmatize women and girls who come forward to complain, to say that they’re uneasy or that something is wrong,” she added.

“Girls out of school are much more available for child marriage, the promulgation of female genital mutilation, and other things that can be done to them against their will,” Kanem said, adding that it is “very important for communities, traditional leaders and faith leaders” to do more to stop violence against women.