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Proud of vaccine success, Warp Speed's ex-science head talks politics, presidents, and future pandemics – Science Magazine

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Moncef Slaoui last spring spoke at a White House ceremony that announced his appointment as scientific head of Operation Warp Speed.

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

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.

During his undergraduate years at the Free University of Brussels, Slaoui was a militant in a secret organization that wanted to spark a revolution in Morocco, his native country. “What I realized at the very end as I got in trouble with the regime was that, at least as far as I’m concerned, I want to participate in changing the world.”

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.

Q: We met 4 years ago to talk about your vision for a pandemic preparedness vaccine manufacturing plant. It didn’t get off the ground. Would it have made a difference?

A: Absolutely. The whole concept—after we went through the flu pandemic, the Ebola outbreak, the Zika outbreak—was to say, “Listen, the problem is always the same, which is there are no manufacturing facilities sitting there idle, waiting to be used. Even if we had one, we would have trouble because we would have to stop manufacturing other vaccines, which are essential for saving people’s life.” So we thought, “Why don’t we take a dedicated facility and have them work on discovering vaccines against known potential outbreak agents, one after the other?” They would become incredibly skilled and trained at going fast, discovering vaccines. The company was prepared to make available the facility and ask just for the cost of running it. Unfortunately, it didn’t fly. [For the COVID-19 vaccines,] the biggest challenge we’ve had to work on the hardest has been manufacturing.

Q: So you think you would have been better prepared if the BPO was up and running?

A: Yes. I have already started discussing this with my successor with the new administration, David Kessler [Biden’s chief science officer for COVID-19 response]. This pandemic is costing $23 billion a day to the U.S. economy, every single day. Investing $300 million to $500 million a year into such a facility is peanuts and would save countless lives.

Q: There must be some “I told you so.”

A: It’s never my philosophy to say, “I told you so.” I think it’s a negative, it’s not helpful. For me, it’s more, OK, we learned more. Let’s set ourselves an ambitious objective and try to now make this happen, capitalizing on everything we’ve learned. Clearly, we can develop vaccines within 8, 9 months against an unknown pathogen. That’s just amazing.

Moncef Slaoui receives his first dose of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.

Moncef Slaoui

Q: What did you think of Donald Trump?

A: I completely disagree with the values that he projects, as a person, in terms of respect, in terms of capacity to listen, accepting diversity. Many of the policy decisions that ended up politicizing this pandemic were wrong, particularly around wearing the mask. But at the same time, I do think that Warp Speed was absolutely visionary to put together science, government, the military, and the private sector and just give us full empowerment. It was the right thing to do.

My preference is even after the fact, not to politicize this. I worked so hard to stay out of any politics, because I was convinced it would derail it. Even now I think it could derail it when I see the headlines. It just kind of makes me sad.

Q: What headlines are you referring to?

A: That there’s absolutely no plan for the vaccines. I saw that today on CNN. How can you have discovered two vaccines, developed them all the way to approval, manufacture, and distribute with 99.9% precision 14 million doses to 14,000 sites and it’s labeled as there is no plan? We had to do everything from scratch. The biggest lesson for politicians in public health is: Never politicize. Just let people do the work, and if there are things that are wrong, let’s fix them versus make a whole story out of that because it freaks out people.

Q: Trump had a concern about a deep state, the worry that people in the government were working against him. Did he ever confront you and say, “You’re a Democrat, you didn’t vote for me, are you working behind my back?” Did he ever get in your face?

A: Absolutely not. He never told me, “Why can’t you make it happen sooner?” He asked me, “Can it happen sooner?” And I should say also, frankly, that Jared Kushner, with whom I had a lot of interactions, was absolutely straight, no interference, very rational, and very balanced.

Q: Trump made an assertion that Pfizer delayed announcing its efficacy data until after the 3 November 2020 presidential election to hurt him. What was your reaction when you heard him say that?

A: He asked me. And I said, “No, this is not how it works.” There is a data safety monitoring board and they’re independent. These companies have processes, they have tens of thousands of people in them. They can’t do this. It would be the end of the company if they did that, and I’ve been on the board of a big pharma company and an executive in a big pharma company. I know how it works. The CEO will be fired in a second. I have frankly big respect for [Pfizer CEO] Albert Bourla for just having said it’s going to be this day and then it was that day and that’s what it is.

Q: Where were you when you learned the Pfizer data?

A: Albert Bourla emailed and then called me. I was in my hotel place in Washington, D.C., which is very close to the White House. I was expecting high efficacy, but it was an unbelievable joy. It may have been 5 a.m., and I remember telling myself, “I’m not going to scream.” When I think about this now, it gets emotional. I just realized, “Oh my God, we’re going to control this pandemic.”

Q: One of the problems you had from the very beginning was allegations of your own conflicts of interest and you were very upset by Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D–MA) attack on you and all the media accounts. What do you think of the way you were criticized? [Slaoui was on Moderna’s board, which received substantial Warp Speed support, and also retained GSK stock, though offered to donate to research any increase in value it had turning his tenure.]

A: I was proactive and decided to resign from the Moderna board and agreed I would sell my shares to make sure there is no conflict whatsoever. I don’t complain about that, but if you look at the share price at the time I sold and the share price now, I left an enormous amount of money on the table.

Q: How much approximately would you have made had you not taken this job?

A: Maybe between 8 [million] and 12 million. But honestly, I’m not calculating, that’s not what I stand for, believe it or not. I’ve dedicated all my professional life to make sure I help and support global health by being inside a big company and driving its policies. I was shocked by people saying, “You’re corrupt, you’re doing this for the money,” by making an assertion that because you’re a pharmaceutical executive, you have to be a person with no values and no principles. That crossed a line. Even now I’ll ask, Elizabeth Warren, which vaccine did you take as a senator? The Pfizer vaccine maybe or the Moderna vaccine? Aren’t you happy you had the vaccine? Did I make a penny? Was I helpful?

Q: Warp Speed has been heavily criticized for not getting vaccines into more arms. What do you think about that? [To date, 41 million doses have been distributed to states and about half have been administered.]

A: There has been a huge misunderstanding. Between May [2020] and now, we’ve moved five vaccines into phase III trials, two have been authorized, two are completing phase III—and one of those could be approved imminently. One other vaccine is in phase IIb. By all standards, this is absolutely exceptional.

Moncef Slaoui (left) and Gen. Gustave Perna, co-leaders of Operation Warp Speed, hold a vial of COVID-19 vaccine on the day they both get vaccinated.

Moncef Slaoui

Our mission in its second piece, with my co-leader Gen. [Gustave] Perna, was to distribute the vaccines, take them from point A to the point of immunization. That’s how we designed it and worked it out with all the jurisdictions in the country. We went to the departments of health of various states, we explained that we’re going to ship vaccine on a weekly basis as they are produced and quality controlled. We will proportionately give doses to each jurisdiction based on the population so that it’s fair.

Indeed, the immunization definitely is not working appropriately. And as long as that is not working appropriately, we’re failing. Overall, we’re failing, because the objective is to immunize.

Q: The Trump administration from the beginning of the pandemic response said, “We’ll help, but this is up to the states and local jurisdictions.” The Biden administration comes in and says, “No, the federal government can coordinate this.”

A: Frankly I’ve been caught in the middle of that. But if I am [a state or local official] who is deciding how many doses I need, I should at least say, “Hey guys, I don’t have the resources to immunize.” We have never been told that.

Q: But the Trump administration told us there would be 300 million doses by January. We were not told in a transparent fashion how many doses are coming week by week—there’s no dashboard that everyone can see. So there’s confusion about how many doses really are available.

A: What’s really important is to truly understand how we can solve the problem. I have always said, “Listen, if there is a problem, please come and help us with a specific proposal and let’s pull up our sleeves together and work it out.” I did vaccines for a long time. Manufacturing is very difficult and very complex.

Q: In addition to what the companies are producing, would you have the government build another manufacturing plant?

A: Yes. My proposal would be for the government to have a license to these technologies for pandemic agents exclusively, not for commercial use.

Q: The Trump administration has been criticized for not being helpful to the Biden administration during the transition. Was it bumpier than you had hoped it would be?

A: I had interactions with David Kessler during the summer. I spoke to him regularly. Once the election happened, it was absolute silence—it was against the law for us, as federal employees or contractors, to talk to nonfederal people. I was surprised that nothing happened. We had no contact, no meeting, no nothing. And then somewhere in the second half of December [2020], we had a first meeting with Jeff Zients [coordinator of Biden’s pandemic response] and David Kessler and others, where we just introduced each other and discussed what was involved.

Q: Do you think that Trump’s failure to concede made it more difficult to transition the information to the next team?

A: For sure. It was at least very, very unfortunate, to use a polite word.

Q: When will you leave?

A: I am very supportive of the new administration. I don’t want to turn my back and leave. They proposed that we could have a notice period of 30 days after I resign, and that gives us time to cover the transition. So I did that on that on 12 January, and my last day will be 12 February.

I’ve since had many very good discussions with David Kessler over the phone that last more than an hour each to share everything I know. I’m totally committed to help 100%.

I’m surprised we got an email yesterday saying, “As of tomorrow, you cannot use the name Operation Warp Speed any more.” I asked myself, why? What’s the added value? This is probably why I’m not a politician. It just escapes rationality and understanding. Because in a way, everybody that works under Operation Warp Speed feels like, “What did we do wrong?”

I’m not married to that name. I don’t care. Honestly, I feel so fortunate and happy to have served and hey, that’s all that counts. I would redo it in the blink of an eye. But next pandemic virus, please, do not come during an election year.

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The politics of naming and renaming public spaces in India – Hindustan Times

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Some saw it a justifiable tribute to the man who is a Gujarati icon, has contributed immensely to Ahmedabad’s infrastructure and also headed the state’s cricket administration (AFP)

The politics of naming and renaming public spaces in India

Modi is the first Indian prime minister in office to get a stadium, or any other public place for that matter, named after themselves. If one looks for examples outside India, he is not in great company either
By Ronojoy Sen
UPDATED ON FEB 28, 2021 07:24 PM IST

The renaming of the Motera cricket stadium as the Narendra Modi stadium created a flutter before the India-England Test match. Some saw it a justifiable tribute to the man who is a Gujarati icon, has contributed immensely to Ahmedabad’s infrastructure and also headed the state’s cricket administration. Others saw it as the hubris and vanity of a leader who allowed a stadium to be named after him during his lifetime.

Naming and renaming of public spaces are a complicated and political business in most countries, especially so in India. After Independence, we saw a flurry of name changes as India sought to physically erase markers of the colonial legacy. In Delhi, names of landmark roads were changed — Kingsway to Rajpath and Queensway to Janpath, for instance.

This was also true in Kolkata, once the second city of the empire, where, over the years, British names were assiduously dispensed with. So Dalhousie Square, named after Governor General Dalhousie, in the heart of the city, was renamed Binoy Badal Dinesh (or BBD) Bagh (or Bag). Numerous other city landmarks were also peremptorily renamed. For instance, the name of Minto Park, named for a former viceroy, was changed to Shaheed Bhagat Singh Udyan. More interestingly, Auckland Square, named after yet another governor-general, was changed to Benjamin Moloise Square after the South African poet.

The internationalist tenor, prompted by India’s leadership of newly independent nations, was most pronounced in Delhi where roads were named after now forgotten figures like Benito Juarez. Perhaps the most amusing of the changes was in Kolkata where Harrington Street, where the American consulate is located, was renamed Ho Chi Minh Sarani during the Vietnam War. Some of these names have not stuck, the best example being Rajiv Chowk that replaced Connaught Place.

A similar impetus, but driven more by nativism, was responsible for the renaming of Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Bangalore and a host of other cities from the mid-1990s. The Shiv Sena’s first stint in power in Maharashtra from 1995 also saw an aggressive championing of Marathi icons, most notably Shivaji. Several Mumbai landmarks, including the Victoria Terminus and Prince of Wales Museum, as well as the airport, were renamed after Shivaji. Since the Modi government came to power in 2014, the renaming impulse has been motivated by the erasure of India’s Islamic heritage and Muslim rule. Perhaps, the prime example is the renaming of Allahabad to Prayagraj. Others include the renaming of Faizabad district to Ayodhya and Mughalsarai, a major railway junction, to Deen Dayal Upadhyay Nagar after the BJP ideologue and leader. There are more on the anvil, most notably the renaming of Ahmedabad as Karnavati.

If India has gone through bouts of renaming, the act of naming government buildings, projects and schemes has been queered by the Congress hegemony for much of independent India. While every respectable town has at least one road named after Mahatma Gandhi, the Nehru-Gandhi family has reigned supreme. According to an RTI query in 2013, a staggering 12 central and 52 state schemes, 28 sports tournaments and trophies, 19 stadiums, five airports and ports, 98 educational institutions, 51 awards, 15 fellowships, 15 national sanctuaries and parks, 39 hospitals and medical institutions, 37 other institutions, chairs and festivals and 74 roads, buildings and places were named after Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. There are many who insist that the renaming of the Ahmedabad cricket stadium must be seen in the context of pushing back at the Nehru-Gandhi legacy.

However, it is more than that. Modi is the first Indian prime minister in office to get a stadium, or any other public place for that matter, named after themselves. If one looks for examples outside India, he is not in great company either.

Whatever the rationale for the renaming, it is ironical that most stadiums in India are named after politicians and administrators, and rarely sportspersons. The renaming of the Ahmedabad stadium, the largest cricket stadium in the world, perpetuated that trend.

Ronojoy Sen is senior research fellow, ISAS & SASP, National University of Singapore

The views expressed are personal

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LeBron James responds to Zlatan Ibrahimovic telling him to stay out of politics – NBC News

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LOS ANGELES — LeBron James responded to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s criticism of his political activism with a promise that he will never just shut up and dribble.

The Los Angeles Lakers superstar also pointed out that Ibrahimovic clearly didn’t feel the same way about spotlighting social injustices when the soccer great called out racism in his native Sweden just three years ago.

The AC Milan striker and former LA Galaxy star criticized James and other socially conscious athletes Thursday in an interview with Discovery Plus. Ibrahimovic called it “a mistake” for James and other athletes to get involved in political causes, saying they should “just do what you do best, because it doesn’t look good.”

James responded forcefully to Ibrahimovic’s stance after the Lakers’ 102-93 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night.

“I would never shut up about things that are wrong,” said James, who had 28 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.

“I preach about my people and I preach about equality, social injustice, racism, systematic voter suppression, things that go on in our community,” James added. “I know what’s going on still, because I have a group of 300-plus kids at my school that’s going through the same thing, and they need a voice, and I’m their voice. I’ll use my platform to continue to shed light on everything that’s going on around this country and around the world. There’s no way I would ever just stick to sports, because I understand how powerful this platform and my voice is.”

James funds the I Promise School in his native Akron, Ohio. The third-leading scorer in NBA history also backs numerous initiatives pursuing social justice, voting rights and other progressive causes.

James also made it clear he was aware of comments made in 2018 by Ibrahimovic, the Swedish-born son of a Bosnian father and a Croatian mother.

“He’s the guy who said in Sweden, he was talking about the same things, because his last name wasn’t a (traditional Swedish) last name, he felt like there was some racism going on when he was out on the pitch,” James said. “I speak from a very educated mind. I’m kind of the wrong guy to actually go at, because I do my homework.”

Indeed, Ibrahimovic told Canal Plus that “undercover racism” caused the Swedish media and public to treat him with less respect and reverence: “This exists, I am 100% sure, because I am not Andersson or Svensson. If I would be that, trust me, they would defend me even if I would rob a bank.”

James and Ibrahimovic overlapped in Los Angeles for about 16 months from the summer of 2018 until November 2019, when Ibrahimovic went back to Europe. While Zlatan was unable to carry the Galaxy to an MLS Cup title despite playing exceptionally during two largely frustrating seasons, LeBron already won the Lakers’ 17th NBA title in his second season with the club.

They also share remarkable similarities as two astonishing athletes who have remained among the world’s best players deep into their 30s. The 36-year-old James is still one of the best all-around players in modern basketball, while the 39-year-old Ibrahimovic remains among Serie A’s scoring leaders with 14 goals in just 13 league games for Milan.

Dennis Schröder, the Lakers’ German point guard, gave his support to James and confirmed the obvious truth that Ibrahimovic’s attitude is decidedly not shared by many European athletes.

“Every athlete can use our platform and try to make change in this world,” Schröder said. “Zlatan, he’s a little different. Unique player, unique character.”

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Week In Politics: House Approves $1.9 Trillion Pandemic Relief Package – NPR

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The Saudi crown prince may escape punishment for his order to kill a columnist. A pandemic relief package is moving through Congress. Donald Trump remains popular with conservative activists.



SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A few acronyms to chew over this morning – hope it doesn’t make breakfast taste flat – MBS, CPAC, OMB, if we have the time. Joining us now to spell it all out, NPR senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning. Hope things are A-OK with you, Scott.

SIMON: (Laughter) Oh, I walked into that, didn’t I? Of course, MBS is what they call Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince. U.S. officials say that he approved the grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 – approved it, lied about it afterwards. Not clear if President Biden will do anything in response to this finding.

ELVING: You know, the role of MBS in this murder has been widely known, both inside and outside the intel community, for roughly two years. But the Trump administration was pursuing an ever-closer relationship with the Saudis, and especially and particularly MBS. And that had a lot to do with arms sales and Israel. So the report was not released, and there was a general refusal to acknowledge the known facts.

Now, the new administration is making more of the reports public but still not doing much about it, at least not yet. The White House says we should stay tuned but suggesting only that the Saudis are on some sort of probation now. And that seems to be the best judgment within Biden’s security team. It’s not good enough for a lot of Biden’s own voters who were expecting much more severe consequences for MBS and for the Saudi regime.

SIMON: It’s irresistible to point out – first military action of the Biden administration launched this week, an airstrike against Syria because Iranian-backed militias there had attacked American assets in the region. That gets an airstrike. Saudi Arabia gets a summary.

ELVING: Yes, President Biden said that strike was a message to Iran to, quote, “be careful. You can’t act with impunity,” unquote. And in substance, it was a far more consequential response than Biden made to the Saudis, a contrast that, as you suggest, made the slap on the wrist for MBS all the more troubling.

SIMON: Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, this weekend in Orlando, the largest gathering of conservative activists. Apparently, it includes an inflatable golden bust of Donald Trump. Any room for Republicans like Liz Cheney of Wyoming or Adam Kinzinger of Illinois?

ELVING: Well, what’s the opposite of a welcome mat, Scott? Maybe skull and crossbones on the door? The obvious question is how big a tent the Republicans want. Will it be Reagan’s or Bush’s or Trump’s tent? And will those people who were not welcome at CPAC be part of the party’s campaigns in 2022 and 2024? We’ll stay tuned.

SIMON: A $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package has passed the House, and President Biden spoke about that today at the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We are one step closer to putting $1,400 in the pockets of Americans. We are one step closer to extending unemployment benefits for millions of Americans who were shortly going to lose them. We are one step closer to helping millions of Americans feed their families and keep a roof over their head. We are one step closer to getting our kids safely back in school.

SIMON: But, Ron, Senate rules won’t allow another thing that the president wanted, which is a hike in the minimum wage.

ELVING: The good news for the White House is that the rest of this relief bill seems remarkably popular, even with some Trump voters. So with the minimum wage issue set aside to be dealt with separately later this year possibly, the overall bill seems increasingly likely to be law.

SIMON: Finally, Neera Tanden is President Biden’s pick to lead OMB, the Office of Management and Budget. As a partisan political figure, she made some colorful observations about some U.S. senators whose votes she may not get now.

ELVING: One lesson here is that a 50-50 Senate truly empowers the individual senator. So losing one or two can cost you your power to act. And that’s a lesson we’re likely to learn over and over. And another lesson is that even in the age of Trump Twitter, what others say on social media can still come back to haunt them.

SIMON: NPR’s senior Washington editor Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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