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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

However, the timing of Slaoui's divestment of his Moderna shares — five days after he resigned from the company's board — meant he did not have to file disclosures with the SEC confirming the sale, even though he was privy to insider information when he received the stock options, experts in securities law said. That weakness in securities law, according to good-governance experts, deprives the public of an independent source of information about the sale of Slaoui's stake in the company.

"You would think there would be kind of a one-year continuing obligation (to disclose the sale) or something like that," said Douglas Chia, president of Soundboard Governance and an expert on corporate governance issues. "But there's not."

HHS declined to provide documentation confirming that Slaoui sold his Moderna holdings. His investments in London-based GlaxoSmithKline — which is developing a vaccine with French drugmaker Sanofi and received $2.1 billion from the U.S. government — will be used for his retirement, Slaoui has said.

"I have always held myself to the highest ethical standards, and that has not changed upon my assumption of this role," Slaoui said in a statement released by HHS. "HHS career ethics officers have determined my contractor status, divestures and resignations have put me in compliance with the department's robust ethical standards."

Moderna, in an earlier statement to CNBC, said Slaoui divested "all of his equity interest in Moderna so that there is no conflict of interest" in his new role. However, the conflict-of-interest standards for Slaoui and other Warp Speed advisers are less stringent than those for federal employees, who are required to give up investments that would pose a conflict of interest. For instance, if Slaoui had been brought on as an employee, his stake from a long career at GlaxoSmithKline would be targeted for divestment.

Instead, Slaoui has committed to donating certain GlaxoSmithKline financial gains to the National Institutes of Health.

 

Offering Warp Speed advisers contracts might have been the most expedient course in a crisis.

"As the universe of potential qualified candidates to advise the federal government's efforts to produce a COVID-19 vaccine is very small, it is virtually impossible to find experienced and qualified individuals who have no financial interests in corporations that produce vaccines, therapeutics, and other lifesaving goods and services," Sarah Arbes, HHS' assistant secretary for legislation and a Trump appointee, wrote in September to Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who leads a House oversight panel on the coronavirus response.

That includes multiple drug industry veterans working as HHS advisers, an academic who's overseeing the safety of multiple COVID-19 vaccines in clinical trials and sits on the board of Gilead Sciences, and even former government officials who divested stocks while they were federal employees but have since joined drug company boards.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb and Dr. Mark McClellan, former FDA commissioners, have been visible figures informally advising the federal response. Each sits on the board of a COVID-19 vaccine developer.

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