MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Operation Warp Speed - that is the federal program to try to deliver a coronavirus vaccine in record time. It's moving along. Front-runners are expected to submit their vaccine candidates to the Food and Drug Administration before the end of the year. But details about the employment of the program's chief scientific adviser, including possible conflicts of interest, those details have been hard to come by. NPR's pharmaceutical correspondent, Sydney Lupkin, got a copy of the adviser's contract, and she's here to tell us about it.
Hey there, Sydney.
SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Hello.
KELLY: So this chief scientist, his name is Moncef Slaoui. I interviewed Dr. Slaoui here on the show last month. What are the concerns being raised?
LUPKIN: Moncef Slaoui is, of course, a pharmaceutical veteran who specializes in vaccines. In fact, he was once chairman for vaccines at GlaxoSmithKline, one of the companies now working on a coronavirus vaccine. If Slaoui was a government employee, he would have to go through a bunch of Office of Government Ethics steps - disclosures about his stock holdings, divestment of anything that might pose a conflict of interest, or he might have to recuse himself from certain decisions. What's more, all of this would be public.
That didn't quite happen here because Slaoui was brought on as a contractor and hired through a private firm working with the government.
KELLY: Right. And that - just that detail in and of itself, his being a contractor, that has been controversial.
LUPKIN: Mmm hmm. That's right. Senator Elizabeth Warren is among several Democratic legislators to question whether Slaoui should have been hired as a federal employee instead, given his key position. He said he doesn't make decisions, but he has a lot of influence. In a statement, he said he took on this role out of a commitment to public health and to helping control this deadly pandemic. He also affirmed his commitment to the highest ethical standards.
Details of Slaoui's contract have emerged slowly, but the full contract wasn't widely available, even though folks have been asking for it for months. HHS provided it to me last night.
KELLY: So what's in it? What can we learn from it?
LUPKIN: Well, even though it's been well-reported that Slaoui is only being paid $1 for his work, he's actually being paid $1,000. Same basic principle, though. It's a lump sum that's a lot less than what he'd be paid on a salary.
LUPKIN: The contract repeats some of what's already come out in news reports and from congressional oversight, but lays it out in black and white. It includes Slaoui's board memberships, including his role on vaccine front-runner Moderna's board. He's stepped down. It also includes stockholdings. Slaoui's held on to his GlaxoSmithKline stock, but agreed to donate profits during his time at Operation Warp Speed above a certain threshold.
We also learned that the scope of this work, as described in the contract, is really brief, which I'm told by a lawyer who works on government contracting isn't that abnormal. But Public Citizen's Craig Holman says it may be too vague.
CRAIG HOLMAN: You know, the contract itself doesn't actually explain what it is he's doing. And so that provides a lot of wiggle room for Moncef Slaoui.
LUPKIN: He says Slaoui shouldn't be a contractor because he holds such a key role in Operation Warp Speed.
KELLY: Well, what do his bosses in the Trump administration - what does HHS say about that?
LUPKIN: HHS says Slaoui's expertise is invaluable to Operation Warp Speed, but the actual investments are decided by a board of directors. That board includes the secretaries of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense. It also includes members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. And they also say - their agency ethics officers say Slaoui is in compliance with its standards thanks to the steps he's taken to disclose, divest and donate.
KELLY: That is NPR pharmaceutical correspondent Sydney Lupkin.
Thank you so much, Sydney.
LUPKIN: You bet.
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