The Morocco-born venture capitalist has executive experience in the global pharmaceutical industry.
Rabat – US President Donald Trump selected yesterday Moroccan immunology expert Moncef Slaoui to be the head of his administration’s COVID-19 vaccine development team, working on “Operation Warp Speed.”
The Moroccan expert, 60, will serve as the US government’s “therapeutics czar” to help coordinate the development of vaccines and treatments. The role is shared between the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense.
Growing up in Morocco, Slaoui lost his sister to whooping cough, an immunizable disease. Her tragic death triggered his interest in immunology and led him to a career that would place him at the helm of the development of vital vaccines.
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.
Throughout his career, Slaoui has worked tirelessly to fight under-researched diseases that disproportionately impact vulnerable communities in the developing world, and now has ties with several companies engaged in the international COVID-19 response.
He was the former head of the vaccines division at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a multinational pharmaceutical company based in London.
As chairman of vaccines at GSK, he oversaw the development of various vaccines protecting against gastroenteritis in infants (Rotarix), pneumococcal disease (Synflorix), and cervical cancer (Cervarix). In 2015 he won European approval for the world’s first malaria vaccine (Mosquirix). When he retired from the drugmaker in 2017, GSK had a vaccine for Ebola in development.
GSK is now working on a COVID-19 vaccine with Sanofi, a French multinational pharmaceutical company.
Since leaving GSK, Slaoui has become a partner at Medicxi Capital, a biotechnology venture capital firm in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area. He sits on the board of Moderna, a biotechnology company also pursuing a COVID-19 vaccine, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Slaoui has authored more than 100 scientific papers and presentations and served as a professor of Immunology at the University of Mons, Belgium. Slaoui is a member of the PhRMA Foundation Board of Directors, Advisory Board of Qatar Foundation, National Institutes of Health Advisory Committee to the Director, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization Board of Directors.
Operation Warp Speed
Slaoui rejected reports in late March of his involvement with a US government task force for COVID-19 vaccine development and denied as recently as May 11 any intention to work with the Trump administration.
However, official reports confirmed yesterday his leading volunteer role in Operation Warp Speed. Army General Gustave Perna will support Slaoui in an operational role.
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of President Trump, was among the officials who interviewed Slaoui for the role.
A senior Trump administration official told CNN that Operation Warp Speed aims to make 100 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine available by November, 200 million doses by December, and 300 million doses by January 2021.
The official said the operation’s team members have identified 14 vaccines to focus on development. The team expects to have six to eight vaccines reach the trial stage and hope three to four make it to final testing and become available for distribution.
Dr. Anthony Facui, the White House’s leading infectious disease expert, has expressed doubts that a vaccine will be readily available by January 2021, saying such a feat would be a remarkable achievement.
During an interview on April 12, Slaoui said he expects life to begin its return to normal at the beginning of 2021 after global leaders rein in the pandemic, adding that he considers his prediction “optimistic.”
He is confident “that due to the high number of COVID-19 cases, clinical studies will reach results quickly.” He believes that “by the end of May or by early June, we will know if some of these drugs work.”
Slaoui said it may take years before everyone can benefit from COVID-19 vaccines, but once they are developed, they will greatly minimize the risks of the virus.
“I am very optimistic that we’ll have several vaccines for COVID-19. However, the problem is not having a vaccine. The problem is producing enough to protect eight billion people,” he continued.
Faced with a formidable task, Slaoui’s leading role in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine will be telling of his expertise. His appointment adds to his inventory of commendable achievements while inspiring national pride and illuminating Morocco’s potential to achieve international recognition in the scientific fields.