Donald Trump had chosen him for an impossible mission. Immunologist and specialist in molecular biology, Moncef Slaoui planned and supervised a vaccine production program unprecedented in world history. For Paris Match, he looks back on the incredible human and logistical challenge of an offensive carried out in record time.
Paris Match. Tell us about this Warp Speed operation, launched by Donald Trump to accelerate the development of an anti-Covid vaccine.
Moncef Slaoui. It was an action modeled on the Manhattan Project, which led to the production of the first atomic bomb in World War II. In the spring of 2020, I received a call from a former parliamentarian telling me that the Trump administration had the goal of releasing an anti-Covid vaccine in less than a year, in record time! My interlocutor wanted to know if, in my opinion, it was playable. I answered yes. I had in mind the possibility of using messenger RNA technology, developed by the Moderna laboratory, of which I was then administrator. “The White House will call you,” the man told me before hanging up.
What did you think of Donald Trump?
I am poles apart from his ideas. I remember saying to my wife, “It would be horrible if I somehow got into his re-election.” [Rires.]
So why did you finally accept?
To say no would have been irresponsible. I was the president of research and development for GlaxoSmithKline, the only large laboratory that, along with Sanofi, focuses on vaccine development. While 500,000 people have died from Covid in the United States and more than 2 million worldwide, I was not going to keep this unique experience to myself on the pretext that I did not like President Trump!
Thanks to the logistical support of the US military, what should have taken months was done in record time
What did Operation Warp Speed consist of?
I was working with General Gustave Perna, an exceptional leader. It was necessary to build factories capable of producing the vaccine in industrial quantities, to bring in machines as large as houses from Germany or Japan, block highways to transport them, recruit and bring in foreign engineers capable of making them by military planes. turn around and form local teams for the future. Thanks to the logistical support of the US military, what should have taken months was done in record time.
A real armada!
Yes, I learned a lot. Every morning, during the “battle rythm meeting” [la “réunion du rythme de la bataille”] which was held at 8 am with General Perna, we took stock of the progress of the day before and the decisions to be taken. Last summer we spent two days a week touring the 25 vaccine factories. These methods have perhaps saved us a month … On the scale of human issues, it’s huge!
How was your first meeting with Donald Trump?
It was the morning of May 15, 2020, in the Oval office where I set foot for the first time. The meeting lasted over an hour. Like all the others, she started and finished late. What struck me most about him was his way of constantly changing the subject. Exactly as he does in his speeches. His ability to concentrate seems very limited. He was more interested in remedies than in vaccines. And he swore a lot, as New Yorkers know how to do!
With Operation Warp Speed, Trump was a visionary
Would another president have done better than him in the face of the Covid?
There is no doubt that some of his decisions were bad. Making the wearing of a mask a political affair has cost dearly in human lives. Biden would have done better; he is right, for example, to reintegrate the United States into the World Health Organization. That does not mean, however, that we should reject everything Trump has done: with Warp Speed and this idea of making federal agencies cooperate, of creating a bridge between the government and the private sector, he was a visionary.
Do you like Dr. Anthony Fauci [responsable de la cellule de crise Covid-19 sous l’administration Trump], been the target of threats?
No. My wife said to me: “Be careful anyway”, because my habits were easily spotted. I arrived early, after a jog, in my office of the Department of Health, next to the Capitol. I just received nasty emails.
When I was accused of corruption, I really wondered what kind of mess I had gotten myself into!
You have also been accused by the left of corruption, in particular by Elizabeth Warren, then the Democratic presidential candidate …
But also by the “New York Times”, because I refused to sell my GlaxoSmithKline shares, the dividends of which constitute the bulk of my retirement. When I was accused of corruption, I really wondered what kind of mess I had gotten myself into! I am committed to giving science the added value achieved by these titles between the time I took office and that of my departure: that was not enough. I sold my Moderna shares for $ 80 when they are worth more than double today, depriving me of a capital gain of $ 20-30 million. All this for an unpaid job, since I give science the $ 1,001 provided for in my contract …
Have you been reprimanded by Trump for publicly criticizing his Tweet?
No. It was clear to everyone that I had neither past nor future in this government or any other. I was there to help find a vaccine, so I was left in peace.
Who was your contact in the White House?
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. With him, it went all the better as I was careful never to talk about politics. It is much less cold and more sensitive than people say. We stayed in touch. We have very different points of view, but on the business side, we get along well.
Did he give you his stepfather’s “manual”?
By accepting the job, I had set two conditions: not to be subject to political pressure, not to be hampered by bureaucracy. Jared kept the contract to the letter. Anytime I felt it could go wrong, I called her and the problem was fixed. In the end, Donald Trump had minimal impact on my work.
Out of 94 vaccine projects, 6 were selected, including 5 which keep their promises: never seen before!
What conclusions do you draw from Operation Warp Speed?
This mission was probably the best of my career. From my appointment in May 2020 until last week, I worked seven days a week, without respite. Of 94 vaccine projects submitted, six were selected, five of which are currently keeping their promises. Unheard of in the history of biology research!
Joe Biden is very critical of the delays in the distribution of the vaccine in the United States, which was under your supervision. He even speaks of a “dismal failure”. How do you respond and are you disappointed that he didn’t ask you to stay?
I am not disappointed, no, because it was planned like this: I had set my starting date for the marketing of two vaccines, which happened in mid-December last. But, indeed, I consider these criticisms to be unfounded. This is low political politics! No promises were binding on us, and hiccups were inevitable. At the local level, vaccines were delivered, but often they were not distributed immediately, for various reasons. While, in November, 60% of Americans said they were against vaccination, the demand was underestimated. Everyone in my teams expected Biden as the Messiah. Today, those who remain in office are demoralized. It is to be hoped that the next pandemic will not occur in the middle of an election campaign, as was the case for the Covid.
In Europe too, there are big delays in distribution. What is your opinion on the matter?
I spoke about it with Ursula von der Leyen, during a telephone meeting to which the heads of the seven laboratories linked by contracts to the European Union were invited. In my opinion, Europe would benefit from setting up a permanent organization to be ready for the next pandemics. In 2014, I proposed the creation of a structure called BPO [BioPreparedness Organization], capable of manufacturing vaccines against all pathologies identified by the WHO. The project did not see the light of day, but President von der Leyen loves the idea.
Macron is knowledgeable, sharp and quick. Nothing to do with Trump.
Why has France, the country of Pasteur, failed in this race for vaccines?
Emmanuel Macron, who called me twice since the beginning of the year, asked me the same question… I told him that the problem is, in my opinion, of a cultural nature. In the United States, when a problem arises, we focus on the solution, while in Europe we spend a lot of time breaking down the obstacle, which ends up being counterproductive if we spend too much time on it. ‘energy. Here, risk taking is more natural. So a lot of very good ideas born in Europe materialize in America. That said, Sanofi, which, for purely technical reasons, is late, should release a vaccine before the end of the year, perhaps even for this summer …
How are your exchanges with Emmanuel Macron going?
He is extremely knowledgeable, sharp and quick. He asks the right questions. Nothing to do with Trump.
How do you see the evolution of the virus?
I am optimistic. Currently available vaccines are 100% effective against mortality and 95% effective against severe forms of the disease. Ultimately, hospital services will no longer be saturated. Are we going to eliminate the Covid? No. It will always be there, like the other viruses that we have coexisted with for thousands of years.
By the end of 2022 at the latest, the world should have turned the page
Isn’t the multiplication of variants worrying?
They should not be ignored, but I would like to moderate the concerns on this subject. There will be other variants, it’s the biology of the virus that wants that. But I do not believe in the emergence of a variant so lethal that it would escape the vaccine. The reason is scientific: cellular immune responses recognize very long parts of the virus sequence, which cannot mutate at all levels at the same time. In other words, a lot of “invariable” elements are necessary for its survival. In addition, we are in the process of developing vaccines against certain variants, even if those already produced work on the English variant and the South African variant.
So the curve of the pandemic can only decrease?
I expect significant improvement in the United States from late March or early April, as the 100 million most vulnerable people [âgées ou victimes de maladies chroniques] will be vaccinated. We can already see this development with the decrease in the daily number of deaths. By the end of the summer, life will return to normal in the United States.
Also read.Exclusive – Noubar Afeyan: the boss of Moderna tells the story of the anti-Covid vaccine
And elsewhere ?
Each of the five labs on the track (Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Janssen and Novavax) plans to produce 1 to 2 billion doses in 2021, which will make it possible to immunize 7.5 billion humans inhabiting this planet. By the end of 2022 at the latest, the world should have turned the page.
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