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Warren, other lawmakers seek details of Warp Speed co-chief Slaoui’s contract

Moncef Slaoui attends a vaccine development event in the Rose Garden at the White House on May 15, 2020.

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

By CHRISTOPHER ROWLAND | The Washington Post | Published: August 25, 2020

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WASHINGTON — Democrats on Capitol Hill have asked an Alexandria, Va., consulting company for details about an unusual contract that has allowed the chief scientific adviser to President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed to maintain personal investments and to avoid making ethics disclosures of his holdings in pharmaceutical companies.

In a letter Monday to Advanced Decision Vectors, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and two other lawmakers are asking the firm to explain its role in providing drug company executive Moncef Slaoui’s services as the chief coronavirus vaccine adviser to the Trump administration for $1.

By designating Slaoui a private, outside contractor, the administration has allowed Slaoui to avoid disclosure of extensive drug company investments that he accumulated as a former top executive at GlaxoSmithKline and as a partner in a large venture capital fund, Medicxi. Consumer advocates, pharmaceutical pricing activists and congressional Democrats have called the arrangement an end run around ethics rules for government officials.

“It is not at all clear what ADV’s role is in this contract, nor is it clear how it is in the company’s interest to serve as the middleman in a scheme that appears to be designed solely to allow a high-level scientist involved in OWS to avoid addressing his serious financial conflicts of interest,” wrote Warren, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.

The lawmakers ask for details about terms of Slaoui’s contract with the administration, including compensation and benefits Slaoui is receiving and what the contract says about his possible financial conflicts of interest. They also ask whether ADV was directed to retain Slaoui at the behest of any government official.

The company says on its website that it was founded in 2009 and has experience working with the Defense and Transportation departments. In May, the company won a contract with the National Institutes of Health worth up to $1.5 million to provide consulting services in the agency’s efforts to find and mass produce coronavirus vaccine, according to a federal spending database, USAspending.gov. Trump appointed Slaoui to co-lead Operation Warp Speed on May 15.

An administration official who offered information on condition of anonymity to outline contract details said the agreement with ADV includes the services of additional advisers to Operation Warp Speed, not just Slaoui. It also includes reimbursement of expenses for housing, transportation, and various travel expenses for Slaoui, the person said. Slaoui’s housing and hotel expenses have reached $17,000 as of Saturday, the official said.

“Any funds not used to reimburse Dr. Slaoui for housing or hotel expenses will be returned to the U.S. government,” the official said.

ADV did not respond to requests for comment.

At the time of Slaoui’s appointment, the administration announced that he had left the board of directors of Moderna on May 14 and was selling all of his stock in the company. Moderna has received hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies to develop and manufacture a vaccine and has a contract to supply 100 million doses to the government.

Slaoui said he intended to keep his stock holdings in GSK, which has been selected since, in a partnership with Sanofi, to supply 100 million in doses of experimental novel coronavirus vaccine to the U.S. government.

“If GSK shares accrue more value than the average pharmaceutical index, Dr. Slaoui has committed to donating the difference to the National Institutes of Health for continued research,” the administration official said.

Moderna and the GSK/Sanofi partnership are among a half-dozen private industry projects that have been tapped by the government to produce a vaccine.

In a Department of Health and Human Services podcast conducted with Michael Caputo, assistant secretary of HHS for public affairs, and posted July 31, Slaoui expressed displeasure about the questions surrounding his personal finances, attacking the news media in particular.

I am “very disappointed — or, first, I’ve been very surprised and then extremely disappointed by the fact that having made a decision that has nothing to do with my political motivation or opinion, because I think it’s irrelevant in front of the size of the problem, I made a decision to come and help solve a problem, whoever is the president, whatever is the administration color. And I’m amazed that I’m being attacked on a personal basis,” Slaoui said in the podcast.

“I thought that, you know, the press in particular was informing, but I now [am] convinced factually that the press has only one objective, which is to shape opinions and to distort information in a way that allows [it] to shape an opinion. And I find that unethical, extremely disappointing.”

The HHS Office of Inspector General, responding to a complaint by the advocacy groups Public Citizen and Lower Drug Prices Now, said in July that Slaoui would be in his post for no longer than 130 days, which did not qualify him as a “special government employee,” a designation that would have required him to make financial disclosures and follow conflict-of-interest rules.

In a July 30 letter to Warren and the other lawmakers, HHS said that Slaoui did not have decision-making powers that would supplant the role of a government employee. Slaoui is the co-leader of Operation Warp Speed along with Army Gen. Gustave Perna, a four-star general who serves as the organization’s chief operating officer.

Slaoui is an “elite scientist” with critical knowledge of vaccine development serving in an advisory capacity as he helps the government find the most promising vaccines, HHS said.