Proud of vaccine success, Warp Speed’s ex–science head talks politics, presidents, and future pandemics
When President Joe Biden took office last week, his administration swiftly announced it would be renaming Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s crash program to develop COVID-19 vaccines. The decision puzzled immunologist Moncef Slaoui, scientific head of Warp Speed, but he attributes it to a word he says with disdain: politics.
Slaoui recently resigned from his post, but has agreed to help the Biden transition team into February. In a lengthy chat with Science from his home in Pennsylvania last week, he reflected on his time with Operation Warp Speed, discussing challenging interactions with former President Donald Trump and how to be better prepared for a future pandemic. Never a Trump supporter—he’s a Democrat—Slaoui had reluctantly taken the Warp Speed job because, as the former head of vaccines at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), he thought he could help solve one of the world’s most urgent problems.
But long before COVID-19 surfaced, Slaoui had become frustrated that the vaccine industry had such a haphazard, ad hoc response to emerging infectious diseases. About 6 years ago at GSK, he began working with the company to create a nonprofit division they called a Biopreparedness Organization (BPO) that would exist solely to make vaccines to prevent pandemics. In 2016, after recent outbreaks of Ebola and Zika had made headlines, he explained why the project was sorely needed. “Unfortunately, one of these days, one of these agents is going to be global and very lethal. It’s going to be catastrophic,” he said on a TV show. “So we have to have a longer term commitment and solution that governments and a long-term institution should drive and fund.”
The company ended up buying a defunct drug manufacturing plant in Rockville, Maryland, but it wanted financial help to launch the BPO. The U.S. government, which has sunk more than $11 billion into Warp Speed vaccine R&D, wasn’t interested. GSK helped form the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations in 2017, a nonprofit that would fund vaccine development, but it, too, ultimately didn’t want to bankroll the BPO, and the idea died. The plant is now called GSK’s Slaoui Center for Vaccines Research.
Deeply proud of what he and the Warp Speed team accomplished, Slaoui is chagrined that Biden has called the vaccine rollout a “dismal failure.”
He shares the dismay that there have been significant problems administering the vaccine doses Warp Speed has sent to the states—the troubles make him “sad” and “reflective” about what else he could have done. But he says most of the troubles stem from overwhelmed local public health systems, issues outside of Warp Speed’s purview. “Hundreds of people worked 20-hour days for the last 8 months,” he says. “I cannot wait to actually celebrate with all the people that worked together, someplace where we have a great dinner and we just take time to say, ‘great job, everyone.’”
Earlier today, Slaoui received his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, from Moderna, on whose board he once sat. “I feel a joy I am sure every person that has been vaccinated has felt—a form of liberation,” Slaoui told Science immediately afterward. The interview below has been edited for clarity and brevity.