“Morocco is my country, my origin, and I’m always proud of it, and when people ask about my nationality, I say that I’m Moroccan.”
Rabat – Moroccan-born expert in immunology and vaccinology Dr. Moncef Slaoui was the main guest of the popular television program “Rachid Show” on Friday.
Television channel 2M diffused the virtual interview which gathered host Rachid El Allali and Dr. Slaoui.
The show was an opportunity for the Moroccan public to discover more about the personality of the internationally-renowned scientist. The show also featured inspirational advice from the 61-year-old for youth viewers.
Slaoui began by apologizing for some minor struggles with Arabic. “It’s been 44 years since I left Morocco, so I don’t speak Arabic or Darija very well, I might use French or English along the interview, so forgive me.” However, Slaoui maintained Darija perfectly throughout the entire show.
When asked how he achieved his international success and recognition, Slaoui said that he never thought he would reach the achievements he can claim today. Until the US invited him on May 15 to lead its “Operation Warp Speed” to find a COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Slaoui never thought he would be the head of such a significant operation.
Until President Trump’s appointment, he had “been working so hard, trying new things, listening all the time to learn, and always giving [in terms of knowledge].”
Dr. Slaoui was born in Agadir in 1959 while his parents were on a vacation in the southern coastal city. However, he revealed that he is originally from a Fez and spent the first 17 years of his life in Casablanca.
Slaoui initially planned to study medicine after earning his high school degree in Morocco. He was not lucky enough to apply to medical school in Brussels, because admissions were capped.
The young Moroccan found himself already in Belgium but with interrupted plans, so his school suggested Slaoui apply to study biology instead, and move to medicine the next year. “I said ok, but then I realized how much I loved biology, and stayed in it.”
Dr. Slaoui attributed the passion he developed for biology to his supervisor, Professor Jacques Urbain, although he said, “In 1983 I went to the US to do postdoctoral research in Harvard, and [he] went back to Belgium to teach in the university.”
His passion for biology
After discussing his educational background, show host El Allali evoked a story from Slaoui’s past, about his sister who died from whooping cough at the age of only six months, and asked the doctor how it affected his passion for vaccines.
“My sister died before I was born, and the reason behind her death remained with me until I decided to study biology. That’s when I told myself that vaccines should be available for everyone, should not be expensive, and should be effective.”
In further talks about his background, Dr. Slaoui said that he grew up in a well-to-do family, but regularly observed people who did not have the means to ensure their children received proper medical care.
Empathic, Dr. Slaoui wanted to change the situation. He engaged in politics, but soon realized that politics do not effect as much change as he had expected, and that there are other methods to help people and make a direct impact, namely through scientific research. “This idea had been my motivation for years.”
Dr. Slaoui helped develop over 14 vaccines for several viruses and diseases throughout his career, including ebola and malaria, the latter responsible for over one million deaths globally every year. The expert revealed that the malaria vaccine took his team 27 years to develop, while the process for the ebola vaccine took seven months.
Lessons for the youth
When the Rachid Show host asked the expert about his engagement of young people in his scientific missions, Slaoui revealed that his background inspired a philosophy regarding opportunity.
“I always try to help young people as much as I can, because remembering myself when I was young, a great professor helped me! And that’s exactly why I succeeded,” said Slaoui. “It is fundamental for people who are in position to help, to inspire young people.”
Professionals should make young people believe that “they can achieve bigger things than they think they could achieve. I have never imagined that I [would] stand where I am today, or what I did in universities and international companies.”
“Young people are the ones who will develop the work we’re doing today. Investing in youth is the engine of development,” he stressed.
Slaoui went on to advise young people who have dreams to reach high positions in society by offering a lesson about modesty. “Don’t think of yourself as someone important, waiting for others to give you something. Results will show when you think about giving before receiving. Give first and people will help you.”
The expert also talked about how young people should react to failure. “Self confidence is the key to remain motivated, after failure, which is inevitable. Failing is not the question here, but how to get up after failure, and my advice to the young generation is to learn from your mistakes in order not make them again, because mistakes are the engine of learning.”
Slaoui’s lesson about failure comes after an old colleague revealed a story about him on Facebook last month.
Dr. Kamal El Messaoudi, a specialist in molecular biology, shared the story on May 14. He related how Moroccan universities ignored the Moroccan-born scientist who wanted to grant his country the expertise he brought from Europe in molecular biology.
Initially, an official from the Faculty of Medicine in Casablanca approved the idea, and El Messaoudi set the date of the lecture. One day later, Moncef was told that the lecture was canceled, without any justification.
In an attempt to try his luck elsewhere, Slaoui went to the Faculty of Medicine in Casablanca. Unfortunately, “silence was the answer,” said El Messaoudi.
Memories of Slaoui’s feelings of sorrow and regret prompted El Messaoudi’s initiative to highlight the story.
However, young Dr. Slaoui did not stop there, but kept trying. He built on this during the show, inviting young people to keep trying until they find their calling. “You may be a medical doctor, but you can still try to become an architect, a photographer or a teacher, keep trying ‘till you find yourself.”
May 15, 2020
“The 15th of May was an important day for me, because I’ve been given a great responsibility, while the whole world was watching.”
Dr. Slaoui, who now holds a triple Moroccan-Belgian-American nationality revealed that he had been considering for over 10 days whether or not to accept Trump’s offer to lead the US’ COVID-19 vaccine team, but the impact “Operation Warp Speed” could have on the world pushed him to accept.
Lifestyle and philosophy
El Allali revealed that Dr. Slaoui had suggested they film the show at 5 a.m. EST (10 a.m. Moroccan time) because of his busy schedule. Slaoui also revealed that he works 18 hours a day.
“I wake up early in the morning, and I think about my day plan while I exercise. Many ideas come up to me during this time.”
“I work all day long and I’m happy, and that’s why people need to do what they love, because that’s what gives you energy, because otherwise, you will be losing your energy and lose your perseverance.”
Morocco and scientific research
Dr. Slaoui stressed the importance of scientific research, emphasizing that it gives society the opportunity to develop.
“Morocco needs to boost scientific research, but in competition with the US or the UK, we don’t have the means to compete with such countries, but we can invest in fields in which we have intrinsic competitive advantage, and be the best in the world in those things.”
“For example, I can’t be living in Alaska and promote scientific research about the sun, we have the sun in Morocco,” Slaoui advised.
Dr. Slaoui also urged the creation of a network of scientists around the Arab and the Islamic world, because, according to the expert, scientific research today cannot be conducted optimally without partnership.
“Morocco is my country, my origin, and I’m always proud of it, and when people ask about my nationality, I say that I’m Moroccan,” the scientist concluded.