President Donald Trump’s coronavirus vaccine czar told CNBC on Wednesday that he’s had enough of accusations that his former work in the pharmaceutical industry creates a conflict of interest.
Dr. Moncef Slaoui, who was appointed May 15 to run the Trump administration’s Covid-19 vaccine program, Operation Warp Speed, is a former executive at GlaxoSmithKline as well as a former board member of Lonza Group and Moderna.
All three companies are involved in the development of Covid-19 vaccines, and House Democrats have previously said he had equity in all three until recently. Democrats have said his Moderna stake was worth nearly $12.4 million before he sold it and he held roughly $10 million in GSK shares as of May, according to an Aug. 12 letter seeking more information on his investments.
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren called for Slaoui’s resignation Wednesday, accusing the White House of using a “loophole” in federal ethics law to hire him and keep his stock holdings private. The former GSK executive still holds shares in the company, even though it’s developing a potential Covid-19 vaccine with Sanofi. She also cited a House committee report that said Slaoui may own stock in Lonza Group, a company partnering with Moderna on its coronavirus vaccine and where Slaoui was a board member.
Slaoui admitted in a phone interview with CNBC that he still holds shares in GSK, where he worked for nearly 30 years, and said he plans to use them as part of his retirement. But he said he’s “never owned shares in Lonza.”
He also said that he has divested all shares in companies that have interests in Covid-19 except for GSK. He said the decision to keep his GSK shares was discussed with ethics lawyers at the Department of Health and Human Services.
“I let go of significant value on a personal basis. I’m committed to public health and getting rid of this pandemic,” he said. “It just blows my mind that on a repeated basis that I’m attacked on a personal basis for doing good. I think it’s enough.”
Warren said lawmakers need to strengthen federal ethics laws “to root out this kind of corruption.”
“It should pass the Coronavirus Oversight Recovery Ethics Act, which is a bill that I introduced in order to prohibit conflicts of interest in the federal Covid-19 response. And the first person to be fired should be Dr. Slaoui,” the Massachusetts senator said at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing.
Slaoui said some politicians are quick to make claims.
“I think there is a haste to give a negative, frankly inflammatory messages that are inappropriate, that are hurtful on a personal basis,” he said. “I have given all the information that’s been asked and I continue to give it. And it’s not been properly analyzed.”
In response to Slaoui’s comments Wednesday, Warren told CNBC: “If Dr. Slaoui has had enough, it’s simple: he can disclose his financial interests and fully divest immediately or he can step aside. The American people should never be left doubting if the government will put public health over profits during a pandemic.”
This is not the first time Warren has accused Slaoui of a conflict of interest.
In May, Warren decried Slaoui’s holdings in Moderna, where he was also a board member, calling it a “huge conflict of interest” on Twitter.
HHS announced a few days after Warren’s tweet that Slaoui would divest approximately $12.4 million worth of stock options he had in Moderna after reports surfaced that he still owned more than 150,000 shares of the pharmaceutical manufacturer.
Slaoui resigned in mid-May from the boards of Moderna and Lonza.
Warren on Wednesday also grilled Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn on Slaoui’s ties to the pharmaceutical industry and whether that erodes public trust at the agency.
In response, Hahn said he had “no knowledge” of what Warren described, adding the FDA has established “a very bright line” between the agency and Operation Warp Speed.
“We do not participate in their decisions. We provide technical assistance just as we would for any sponsor,” he said at the hearing. “I do take very seriously the issue of conflicts of interest and how that might affect public perception.”