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How money colors Operation Warp Speed's quest to defeat COVID-19

By Rachana Pradhan, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

Slaoui maintained he was not in discussions with the federal government about a role when his latest batch of Moderna stock options was awarded, telling KHN he met with HHS Secretary Alex Azar and was offered the position for the first time May 6. The stock options awarded in late April were canceled as a result of his departure from the Moderna board in May, he said. According to the KHN analysis of his holdings, the options would have been worth more than $330,000 on May 14.

HHS declined to confirm that timeline.

The fate of Operation Warp Speed after President-elect Joe Biden takes office is an open question. While Democrats in Congress have pursued investigations into Warp Speed advisers and the contracting process under which they were hired, Biden hasn't publicly spoken about the program or its senior leaders. Spokespeople for the transition didn't respond to a request for comment.

The four HHS advisers were brought on through a National Institutes of Health contract with consulting firm Advanced Decision Vectors, so far worth $1.4 million, to provide expertise on the development and production of vaccines, therapies and other COVID-19 products, according to the federal government's contracts database.

Slaoui's appointment in particular has rankled Democrats and organizations like Public Citizen. They say he has too much authority to be classified as a consultant. "It is inevitable that the position he is put in as co-chair of Operation Warp Speed makes him a government employee," Holman said.

The incoming administration may have a window to change the terms under which Slaoui was hired before his contract ends in March. Yet making big changes to Operation Warp Speed could disrupt one of the largest vaccination efforts in history while the American public anxiously awaits deliverance from the pandemic, which is breaking daily records for new infections. Warp Speed has set out to buy and distribute 300 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, the first ones by year's end.

 

"By the end of December we expect to have about 40 million doses of these two vaccines available for distribution," Azar said Wednesday, referring to front-runner vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.

Azar maintained that Warp Speed would continue seamlessly even with a "change in leadership." "In the event of a transition, there's really just total continuity that would occur," the secretary said.

Pfizer, which didn't receive federal funds for research but secured the multibillion-dollar contract under Warp Speed, on Friday sought emergency authorization from the FDA; Moderna is expected to do so in the coming days. In total, Moderna received nearly $1 billion in federal funds for development and a $1.5 billion contract with HHS for 100 million doses.

While it's impossible to peg the precise value of Slaoui's Moderna holdings without records of the sale transactions, KHN estimated their worth by evaluating the company's share prices on the dates he received the options and the stock's price on several key dates — including May 14, the day before his Warp Speed position was announced, and May 20.

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