Aug 13, 2020 - Politics & Policy

House Democrats to investigate scientist leading "Operation Warp Speed"

Clyburn holds a stack of papers in front of a line chart

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) on July 31. Photo: Erin Scott/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

House Democrats on the committee charged with overseeing the federal government's response to the coronavirus announced an investigation Thursday into "Operation Warp Speed," the Trump administration's efforts to accelerate the development and distribution of a vaccine.

Why it matters: In an effort to quickly distribute a vaccine, the Trump administration has bought initial batches from a handful of pharmaceutical companies before knowing whether they are safe and effective, Axios' Bob Herman reports.

What they're saying: The committee is concerned that Moncef Slaoui, a former Moderna executive and the scientist leading the administration's vaccine effort, has financial interests that could undermine the ethics and public trust of a vaccine rollout, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) wrote in a letter to HHS.

  • Clyburn also said he was worried that vaccine candidates chosen under Operation Warp Speed excluded experts and lacked transparency.

The other side: FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn addressed concerns about the integrity of a coronavirus vaccine in the medical journal JAMA last week, saying that "there is a line separating" the government's resources and funding from the FDA’s review processes.

  • An HHS spokesperson pointed out that in early May, Slaoui divested his equity holdings in Moderna before joining Operation Warp Speed. The chief advisor to HHS Secretary Alex Azar for the vaccine project has also "left all advisory boards and boards of directors of companies with even the appearance of conflict," the spokesperson said.
  • Operation Warp Speed selects candidates based on how well they meet criteria on safety, efficacy and large-scale distribution requirements, the spokesperson said.

Background: Slaoui has kept his status as a government contractor while leading the administration's race to distribute a vaccine, which allows him to keep investments in pharmaceutical companies and avoid ethics disclosures, the New York Times reports.

  • The HHS inspector general said in July that it would not require Slaoui to adhere to the ethics rules that federal employees are bound to, citing his unusual role, per the Times.

Go deeper: How the U.S. might distribute a coronavirus vaccine

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment from the HHS.

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