The U.S. government's “Operation Warp Speed” aims to deliver a coronavirus vaccine to Americans by the end of the year, drawing on top minds in pharma, government and academia to do it. And now it has an experienced Big Pharma executive leading the charge.
The Trump administration has tapped former GlaxoSmithKline vaccine head Moncef Slaoui to lead the project, which incorporates the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense and other agencies to advance promising vaccines against COVID-19, according to reports. Already in the race to create a COVID-19 vaccine, programs from Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi, AstraZeneca and Moderna—where Slaoui now serves as a board member—have generated significant interest as they race ahead.
At a Senate hearing earlier this week, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said the Warp Speed project deploys an “all of government” approach to developing and launching a promising COVID-19 vaccine. Officials are working through supply chain considerations as well as R&D to prepare for a massive vaccine rollout.
Slaoui had a nearly 30-year run at GSK, joining in 1988 and leaving in 2017. He was a director for more than 10 years and also served as R&D head during his time at the drugmaker.
After leaving GSK, Slaoui became a biopharma venture capitalist and joined the board of Moderna and other companies. He also joined life sciences investment firm Medicxi as a partner. With the Warp Speed appointment, he’s set to leave the Moderna and other boards, a source told Bloomberg. Shortly after the news broke, patient advocates such as the organization Public Citizen raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest.
Along with Slaoui, President Donald Trump has tapped four-star General Gustave Perna to help lead the program, according to reports. Slaoui is leading in a volunteer capacity, according to the Associated Press.
Operation Warp Speed first made headlines late last month with a report from Bloomberg detailing the effort spanning numerous government agencies and the military. At the time, the group reportedly aimed to deliver 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses by the end of the year. But the Associated Press now cites a goal of 300 million.
Also at the Senate hearing this week, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases chief Anthony Fauci, M.D., said he’s “cautiously optimistic” one or more COVID-19 vaccines in development could work. Asked whether drugs or vaccines will be available in time for students to return to schools this fall, he said that’s a “bridge too far.”
Even as Fauci and others express optimism on the R&D front, some experts believe current vaccine development timelines are unrealistic. SVB Leerink analyst Geoffrey Porges has said creating a vaccine within 12 to 18 months would be as tough as hitting a bull's-eye with darts from 24 feet on the first try.