The chief adviser to Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s program investing billions of dollars into discovering a coronavirus vaccine, says media scrutiny of his stock ownership may delay a vaccine or make its discovery less likely because it is distracting him from his work.
Moncef Slaoui made the remarks on the official Health and Human Services podcast, released Friday, while being interviewed by Michael Caputo, HHS assistant secretary of public affairs. The interview quickly descended into a lengthy rant about the media.
“The American people need to understand that the media often times are lying to them because they don’t want a vaccine, in order to defeat Donald Trump,” Caputo said at one point.
The two men took extensive issue with news stories about Slaoui. He is working as a contractor voluntarily, drawing payment of only $1. As news reports have outlined, this exempts him from ethics rules that would apply to federal employees.
Slaoui worked for 30 years in senior roles at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. He still holds significant stock in the company. The HHS inspector general ruled that he can continue to own stock in the pharmaceutical industry and is exempt from disclosure rules that would apply if he joined the government.
After introductions, the podcast interview pivoted to the media’s treatment of Slaoui. Caputo said that by joining Operation Warp Speed, Slaoui put a target on his back. Slaoui agreed and said he was naive. He said the media attention has distracted him and hurt the development of a vaccine.
“I’m amazed that I’m being attacked on a personal basis in a way that frankly distracts my energy and the energy of all the teams we’re working together with to deliver, and therefore decreases our chances or the speed with which we try to help humanity and the country resolve and address this issue,” he said.
Slaoui said he is convinced the press has only one objective, which is “to distort information in a way that allows them to shape an opinion.”
Caputo then praised Slaoui for working for free and ridiculed the notion of him trying to enrich his former company. “I don’t recognize the media anymore,” he said. “I’m convinced that the reporters don’t want a vaccine, sir. They don’t.”
As of Monday, 4.7 million Americans have tested positive for COVID and over 155,000 people have died. There has recently been an average of about 1,200 new deaths every day.
Slaoui said on the podcast that the news stories have been “insulting to the deepest of my personal fibers” and challenged the media on what they are doing to help during the pandemic. Caputo singled out one reporter who wrote about Slaoui in particular, Noah Weiland of the New York Times. “I can tell you, sir, I will not speak to Noah Weiland. He calls my phone, I don’t answer it. It’s unethical reporting.”
Caputo then turned to Democrats who have questioned Slaoui’s contract arrangement, saying they do not want there to be a vaccine until after the Nov. 3 election. “I don’t want to talk about politics here,” Caputo said before adding “they don’t want a vaccine now because of politics.”
Slaoui said he also didn’t want to talk about politics and is focused on discovering a vaccine. “I am resentful for actions that knowingly or unknowingly curtail that effort. That’s inappropriate, that’s wrong, that’s unethical,” he said.
“It’s inhumane,” said Caputo.
Slaoui responded, “I agree.”
Caputo then outlined his theory that the media are writing stories about Slaoui to try to get him to leave Operation Warp Speed because they want it to fail. Reporters are doing this because they are “so deeply unethical and so filled with hatred.”
Lest anyone think he was merely being hyperbolic, Caputo stressed that he believes this worldview “all the way in my aorta.”
Patients Over Pharma is one of the progressive groups that has questioned whether former pharmaceutical executives should oversee a project that will dispense billions of dollars to the industry. Spokesperson Eli Zupnick said Monday that everyone wants Slaoui to succeed, but there’s no reason he can’t do that while adhering to transparency and ethics guidelines.
“Dr. Slaoui doesn’t seem to understand that what he perceives as attacks aren’t personal and they aren’t ‘fake news,’” said Zupnick. “They are about making sure that the public can trust that Operation Warp Speed is operating in the best interests of patients and public health and not engaging in the cronyism and corruption that is so pervasive through the Trump administration.”