At HELP Hearing, Warren Draws Attention to Vaccine Czar Conflicts of Interest; FDA Director Agrees Financial Conflicts of Interest Could "Affect Public Perception" of the Vaccine Development Process
Operation Warp Speed, federal vaccine project headed up by Dr. Moncef Slaoui, has invested billions in the very companies Slaoui holds millions of dollars worth of stock in; Warren urges Congress to pass her Coronavirus Oversight and Recovery Ethics Act to prohibit conflicts of interest in the federal COVID-19 response, calling for Slaoui to be the first person fired
Washington, DC - During today's Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing, FDA Director Dr. Stephen Hahn agreed with United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that financial conflicts of interest in the drug and vaccine development process could "affect public perception" of federal decisions, such as the decision to approve a COVID-19 vaccine. Senator Warren pressed Dr. Hahn on whether Dr. Moncef Sloui, the head of Operation Warp Speed and a former drug company executive, should step aside because of his reported conflicts of interest. Dr. Slaoui holds stock in GlaxoSmithKline, a drug company working on a coronavirus vaccine, and according to new documents released yesterday by the House, he may own stock in Lonza Group, a company working with Moderna, another pharmaceutical company, to make a vaccine.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Robert Redfield, Dr. Hahn, and Admiral Brett Giroir all pledged to Senator Warren that they do not hold direct financial investments in any of the companies developing COVID-19 vaccines. Dr. Slaoui should not get to play by a different set of rules. Senator Warren called on Congress to pass her Coronavirus Oversight and Recovery Ethics Act to prohibit conflicts of interest in the federal COVID-19 response and called on Dr. Slaoui to be the first one fired.
Wednesday, September 23, 2020
U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
Chairman Lamar Alexander: Senator Warren.
Senator Elizabeth Warren: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Vaccines are our best chance to end this pandemic. But Americans are not going to take a vaccine if they don't trust the federal officials who are promoting it. If federal officials stand to gain financially from certain COVID vaccines, and not from others, then Americans might reasonably worry that the vaccine was pushed for personal profit and not because it was best for our health.
So, I have a question for all of our witnesses, and I think you can answer with just a simple "yes" or "no."
Dr. Fauci, do you hold direct financial investments, like stocks, in any of the companies that are developing COVID-19 vaccines?
Dr. Anthony Fauci: No.
Senator Warren: Thank you. What about you, Dr. Redfield?
Dr. Robert Redfield: No, Senator.
Senator Warren: Alright. Dr. Hahn?
Dr. Stephen Hahn: No, Senator Warren.
Senator Warren: And Admiral Giroir?
Admiral Brett Giroir: No, Senator Warren.
Senator Warren: Okay. Thank you. So none of you stands to get richer if any particular drug company gets money from the government. And I'm not surprised by your answers, because federal ethics law prevents you from owning stocks like that. Public health, not money, guides your work for the American people-and that is exactly how it should be.
Dr. Hahn, the FDA is responsible for deciding whether a COVID-19 vaccine is safe. In your opinion, if the FDA officials making these decisions had financial conflicts, would that increase or decrease people's confidence in a COVID-19 vaccine?
Dr. Hahn: Senator, I'm not aware of anyone at FDA that has a conflict related to vaccines who is involved in that decision making process. So, it would be difficult for me to speculate on that since we have very rigorous standards in place. We have monthly review, particularly of senior officials. We have regular training, and we have a cultured FDA which looks at the issue of self-declared as well as Office of Government Ethics review of all conflicts. So, one thing I'd like to say to you, Senator, if anyone's aware of anyone at FDA who has a conflict related to these, I would personally want to know because we will address that right away.
Senator Warren: Well, I very much appreciate this. Because what you're saying is that financial conflicts are a real problem in the drug and vaccine development process. But here's the problem we've got.
Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the man that President Trump selected as the government's "vaccine czar," is a former drug company executive. The Trump Administration used a loophole in federal ethics law to hire him to keep his conflicts from the public. Now, he reportedly owns about $10 million of stock in GlaxoSmithKline-a drug company that's working on a coronavirus vaccine. And according to documents released yesterday by the House, he may own stock in Lonza Group, which is a company working with Moderna, another pharmaceutical company that is trying to make this vaccine.
Why does this matter? Well, Operation Warp Speed-the federal vaccine project that Dr. Slaoui heads up-has invested billions-that's BILLIONS-of dollars in the companies that Dr. Slaoui holds stock in.
So, Dr. Hahn, you and other FDA officials involved in the COVID-19 vaccine must comply with conflict of interest laws. You've just told me how seriously you take that. So, can you explain to me why Dr. Slaoui should get to play by a different set of rules?
Dr. Hahn: Senator Warren, I can't explain the situation. I don't have any knowledge of what you described, but I can tell you is that we have established a very bright line between Operation Warp Speed and FDA. We do not participate in their decisions. We provide technical assistance just as we would for any sponsor.
Senator Warren: So, with all due respect, Dr. Hahn, you just told me that financial conflicts of interest, basically, undermine the public's trust in a vaccine. And Dr. Slaoui has conflicts of interest. So, to boost the public's confidence, shouldn't he eliminate these conflicts?
Dr. Hahn: Senator Warren, I am not aware of the conflicts you're describing, and so I can't comment-- I can't--
Senator Warren: Let me put it this way. Hypothetically, if these conflicts exist, and we will only know if they exist if he makes a full disclosure. But there's much evidence that they exist. If these conflicts exist, should he resign?
Dr. Hahn: So, in a hypothetical situation that you're describing, again, I can't prejudge because I don't know the facts, but I do take very seriously the issue of conflicts of interest and how that might affect public perception.
Senator Warren: Well, let me put it this way. Congress should strengthen the federal ethics laws to root out this kind of corruption. It should pass the Coronavirus Oversight and Recovery Ethics Act, which is a bill that I introduced, in order to prohibit conflicts of interest in the federal COVID-19 response. And the first person to be fired should be Dr. Slaoui.
The American people deserve to know that COVID-19 vaccine decisions are based on science, and not on personal greed. And Congress should pass my bill today.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Chairman Alexander: Thank you, Senator Warren.
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