Morocco's Moncef Slaoui, Donald Trump's man to combat COVID-19

Researcher leads U.S. "Operation Warp Speed' to rapidly develop and distribute coronavirus vaccines
Former GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical executive Moncef Slaoui speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump during a coronavirus disease response event

REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE  -   Former GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical executive Moncef Slaoui speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump during a coronavirus disease response event

U.S. President Donald Trump has called on Moroccan-born scientist Moncef Slaoui to lead Operation Warp Speed, a White House initiative to develop and rapidly distribute vaccines against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 disease. A scourge that has already left hundreds of thousands dead and millions of cases diagnosed around the world due to its great capacity of contagion. 

Slaoui, a 60-year-old Belgian-American researcher born in Agadir, southern Morocco, was president of the vaccine division of the British multinational pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), where he spent 30 years. As GSK's director of vaccines, he oversaw the development of several pharmaceutical remedies that protect against gastroenteritis in infants (Rotarix), pneumococcal disease (Synflorix), and cervical cancer (Cervarix); and in 2015 he obtained European approval for the world's first malaria vaccine (Mosquirix). By the time it left the London-based British company in 2017, it was already working on the development of an Ebola vaccine.

Since he left GSK, Moncef Slaoui has become a partner in Medicxi Capital, a biotech venture capital firm based in Philadelphia, USA. He was also a member of the Board of Moderna Therapeutics, the US biotech company that is also looking for a vaccine against COVID-19 and has already achieved interesting results (he recently reported the successful completion of the first phase of a clinical trial to test a prototype coronavirus vaccine in humans, in which the 45 participants in the experiment who were inoculated with the pathogen dose developed antibody levels similar to those presented by people who have recovered from the disease). 

Jim Greenwood, president and chief executive officer of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), the world's largest commercial institution representing the biotechnology industry, said Slaoui was a great choice and someone who has always stood for scientific excellence. "Over his long career, he has demonstrated a strong commitment to public health, innovation and a public-private partnership that are vital to building the collaborations we need to bring new therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines to the American people.” Greenwood said in a statement released by AFP and The New York Times.  

Notably, during his first years in Morocco, Slaoui lost his sister to pertussis, an immunizable disease. Her tragic death sparked his interest in immunology and led to a career that would put him at the forefront of major projects for the development of vaccines and the fight for immunization against diseases, according to the Morocco World News.

Slaoui obtained a doctorate specializing in molecular biology and immunology from the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, and completed his postdoctoral studies at Harvard Medical School and Tufts University School of Medicine in the USA. 

He is author of more than 100 scientific articles and presentations and has worked as Professor of Immunology at the Belgian University of Mons. In addition, he is PhRMA Foundation Board Member, Qatar Foundation Advisory Board Member and also an advisor to the National Institutes of Health and the Board of Directors of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. 

Moncef Slaoui, ex ejecutivo de GlaxoSmithKline
AP/ALEX BRANDON - Former GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical executive Moncef Slaoui
Operation 'Warp Speed'

Moncef Slaoui now heads the 'Warp Speed' vaccine project, the initiative launched by Washington to boost the production and subsequent distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The goal of this proposal is to make 100 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine available by November, 200 million doses by December and 300 million doses by January, according to CNN. 

Moncef Slaoui said in a press conference with President Donald Trump that developing and mass producing a successful vaccine by January 2021 is a "very credible goal," but he acknowledged that it will be "difficult". 
"Frankly, 12-18 months is already a very aggressive timeline," Slaoui said. "I don't think Dr. Fauci was wrong", referring to recent estimates by the leading expert in the fight against coronavirus in the United States. 

However, the Moroccan researcher said he was not discouraged by President Trump's goal: "I would not have committed unless I thought it was achievable," he said. 

On the other hand, Slaoui had previously commented that there is currently no structure to produce so many vaccines for 7 billion people around the world, nor to distribute them. He has long proposed the creation of a global agency for the production of pandemic vaccines, a proposal that was not accepted by any international body. Slaoui also advanced the blockage that may exist at the time of administering the vaccine when it already exists; he proposed that first we must bring the vaccine to the people at greatest risk, such as the elderly or those suffering from chronic diseases, as explained in depth by Nourdine Mouati, Moroccan expert in international cooperation, in statements made to the program Atalayar of the Spanish radio station Capital Radio.  

Un miembro del personal médico del hospital militar de campaña de Marruecos en la región de Benslimane comprueba un monitor mientras permanece a la espera en medio de la pandemia de la COVID-19, el 17 de abril de 2020
AFP/FADEL SENNA - A member of the medical staff at Morocco's military field hospital in the Benslimane region checks a monitor while standing by in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, April 17, 2020
Morocco's big role

Trump's decision to turn to Slaoui is another example of Morocco's crucial role in managing the coronavirus crisis and leading the response to the pandemic in Africa. 

The North African country, with some 36 million inhabitants, sees how the COVID-19 has a low incidence in its territory thanks to the early measures of confinement and the paralysis of flights and closure of borders decreed at the beginning of the pandemic, within the planning developed by the Moroccan state with King Mohammed VI as head; a strategy that might have seemed drastic at first, since it meant the closure of the country, but which proved to be effective. Morocco is even self-sufficient in the supply of face masks, thanks to the production of more than five million of them per day, and, in addition, it produces respirators of own manufacture, as Nourdine Mouati explained to Atalayar.  

Trabajadores de una fábrica empaquetan máscaras protectoras desechables a lo largo de una línea de producción en la Casablanca de Marruecos, a medida que el país norteafricano aumenta la producción de máscaras debido a la pandemia del coronavirus
AFP/FADEL SENNA - Factory workers package disposable protective masks along a production line in Casablanca, Morocco, as the North African country increases mask production due to the coronavirus pandemic

On March 20, the Alaouite authorities decreed a state of health emergency, limiting travel as much as possible and establishing home confinement. In addition, masks were made compulsory at the beginning of April to tackle the looming crisis, which could seriously threaten a health sector that was starting from a weak position compared to those in other countries, Mouati added.  

Miembros del personal médico del hospital militar de campaña de Marruecos en la región de Benslimane llevan máscaras de protección mientras permanecen en estado de alerta en medio de la nueva crisis del coronavirus, el 17 de abril de 2020
AFP/FADEL SENNA - Members of the medical staff at Morocco's military field hospital in the Benslimane region wear protective masks while on standby in the midst of the new coronavirus crisis on April 17, 2020

There is Moroccan leadership in Africa thanks to the initiative of the Moroccan monarch to lead the response to the coronavirus throughout Africa. Mohamed VI urges Africans to fight together and thus demonstrates his leadership. As analyst Nourdine Mouati explained, Morocco's international cooperation agency is developing major healthcare projects in sub-Saharan African countries. King Alaoui, along with the presidents of Senegal and Ivory Coast, proposed a coordinated response with advances in various areas, such as the donation of masks to sub-Saharan African countries. A joint effort that is presented in view of the delay in action by the African Union (AU).