Moroccan scientist heads Trump’s team to develop a coronavirus vaccine

The Agadir-born Slaoui has a confirmed track record of impressive results in the field of immunology and the discovery of several vaccines.
Monday 25/05/2020

WASHINGTON--The administration of US President Donald Trump has appointed Moroccan-born Belgian-American scientist Moncef Mohamed Slaoui as chief scientist of the committee tasked to develop coronavirus vaccines and treatments. Slaoui’s selection was based on his impressive academic and professional record and accomplishments in this field.

Slaoui has a confirmed track record of impressive results in the field of immunology and the discovery of several vaccines, including those against malaria, rotavirus, cervical cancer and pneumococcus. He also had a successful managerial stint heading the vaccine department at the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline between 2011 and 2016, during which the company succeeded in producing 24 new medicines and vaccines for advanced viruses. He also served on the board of directors of Moderna, the firm that conducted the first vaccine test used to treat a COVID-19 patient in America a few days ago.

Born in 1959 in the city of Agadir in southern Morocco, Slaoui now resides in the United States. He realised early on that real strength in the future will not be connected to intercontinental ballistic missiles or slow-moving and range-restricted tanks, but rather to research labs and pharmaceutical and vaccine companies.

US President Donald Trump stands beside former GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical executive Moncef Slaoui who speaks at The White House, May 15. (Reuters)
US President Donald Trump stands beside former GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical executive Moncef Slaoui who speaks at The White House, May 15. Reuters

Slaoui has an impressive academic track record. He left Morocco to France to pursue his university studies, then settled in Belgium where he studied molecular biology and graduated from the Free University of Brussels. He completed a PhD in immunology from the Free University of Brussels, and then migrated to the United States, where he completed his scientific and academic path in his field of specialisation by teaching and researching at Harvard Medical School.

As chief scientist of the COVID-19 vaccine team, Slaoui will have access to extensive research and experimental infrastructure in the US with the aim of quickly developing experimental vaccines during the first stage of dosage and safety testing. He will work with government partners to ensure that any safe and effective vaccine will be manufactured in sufficient quantities.

To move towards this goal, Slaoui and his committee will rely on available results and resources from the network of research programmes and clinical trials. The first priority for Trump’s team is to develop a safe and effective vaccine to stop the infection from spreading and prevent future outbreaks, in line with the new strategic plan of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which represents a comprehensive and coordinated effort to develop effective biomedical tools to combat COVID-19.

Slaoui will draw on his experience in the field to work with his team to adapt vaccines, treatments and methods previously used to treat the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and other severe coronaviruses, such as SARS, and apply them to the current pandemic.

Although developing an effective vaccine as quickly as possible is an important and strategic priority, Slaoui’s team will have to first identify and evaluate the effectiveness of drugs already approved for other diseases that have potential for treating COVID-19, in addition to extensive testing of new antivirals based on monoclonal antibodies.

Compound vaccines are a critical way to enhance public health coverage through coronavirus immunisation. In this context, and based on his research and experience, Slaoui believes that without having five or six vaccines grouped in one dose, it will be difficult to enter the game of the vaccine industry.

Despite Saloui’s appointment, the struggle continues over who will have the final say when it comes to manufacturing and marketing the new vaccine. The war against COVID-19 is a race for who will be first to corner the global strategic market of producing an effective and safe vaccine. Given the gravity and sensitivity of the new task force’s work, and given the visible conflict between Washington and Beijing, Slaoui will necessarily benefit from the official protocols of high-level security protection.

Slaoui, however, agrees with a number of other scientists that there is a much greater need for transparency on issues related to dealing with disease-causing organisms because of the possibility of their accidental release. The goal of transparency is to protect public safety at all levels and ensure that remedial actions are immediately taken in the event of an accident. What is important for these scholars is to avoid at all costs the atmosphere of a dangerous and unethical competitiveness in this domain between major powers, without ensuring the safety of all biological research labs, whether in China, the US or any other country.