An ironic appointment - GulfToday

An ironic appointment

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Dr Moncef Slaoui was educated in Belgium and the US and has already helped with the development of more than a dozen vaccines.

Dr. Moncef Slaoui, a Muslim, an immigrant and a proud Moroccan with Belgian and US citizenship has been chosen to head Donald Trump’s fast-track effort to develop and distribute a vaccine for Covid-19. Trump praised the immunologist as “one of the most respected men in the world in the production and, really on the formulation of vaccines.” Congress has allocated $10 billion to the drive to find, manufacture, and distribute a vaccine.

 Slaoui is an ironic Trump appointment for several reasons. He was selected even though he is a Muslim although Trump’s initial action as US chief executive was to bar the entry of Muslims to the US. Since then Trump has done his utmost to dramatically reduce and, for most nationalities, halt the flow of immigrants to the US. He has punished tens of thousands of mainly Hispanic migrants who entered the US illegally by detaining them, separating parents from children, and expelling them, often, without their children. Trump has also threatened Mexico and Central American states with sanctions if they fail to prevent migrants from reaching the US southern border.

 Trump’s stand on immigrants is racist, paradoxical and hypocritical. His grandparents were immigrants from Germany who tried to return there after making their fortune in the US and were rebuffed because his grandfather had left illegally in order to avoid military service. Two of Trump’s three wives were immigrants of European stock. His first wife, Ivana was Czech and third, Melania is  from Slovenia. Her parents also immigrated to the US and became citizens in 2018 after Trump took office.

 While becoming a naturalised US citizen, Slaoui has retained both his birth identity and Belgian nationality, demonstrating that he is a citizen of the world. Trump is fixated on “America First,” has refused to condemn “white supremacists,” and has overturned key international agreements and treaties he believes are inimical to US interests.  

 Trump demands underlings obey his commands. Slaoui has refused to capitulate to pressure from Trump by trying to meet his pre-election or other early deadlines for the development of a vaccine. Sloaoui wrote in August that 300 million doses of a vaccine, if successfully developed, could be distributed in mid-2021. This fits the timetable given by Dr. Anthony Fauci, Trump’s chief scientific adviser whose advice he has spurned. And, still rejects even after having a brief battle with the virus.  

 Slaoui is also a registered Democrat who claims he does not want to “get into the politics” of the pandemic. Since Covid-19 first appeared in the US in February Trump has done his utmost to politicise the US approach to the virus and has put his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is not a scientist, in charge of the effort.

Dubbed “Warp Speed,” this is independent of the White House coronavirus task force headed by Vice President Mike Pence.  

 Slaoui’s job is to head up the group which vets firms vying for federal funding in the search for a covid vaccine.   

 Slaoui was born in 1959 in Agadir, Morocco, to a couple with only secondary schooling but valued education highly. His father was a businessman who died when Slaoui was a teenager, leaving his mother with five children to raise and educate. After graduation from high school, he studied biology in Brusseles and in 1982 he earned a PhD in molecular biology and immunology. Two brothers became medical doctors.   

 Slaoui took post-graduate medical courses at Harvard Medical School and Tufts University School of Medicine and in 1998 he received an MBA from the International Institute for Management Development at Lausanne, Switzerland.

 He consulted at Britain’s pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline before taking up employment with the company where he was appointed head of research and development to succeed, another immigrant, Tachi Yamada, a Japanese-born US citizen. Slaoui left the company in 2017 after 29 years and joined European venture capital firm Medicxi.

 Developing vaccines is his vocation as his younger sister died from whooping cough while they were growing up in Morocco. During his time at GlaxoSmithKline he oversaw the development of vaccines to prevent cervical cancer, gastroenteritis in children, and Ebola. He spent 27 years on the world’s first vaccine for malaria which kills more than 400,000 people a year, the majority of whom are children in Sub-Saharan Africa. When the vaccine was first administered by the World Health Organisation to children in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, Slaoui said, “I cried — it’s very personal.”  

While remaining under the radar for the general public, Slaoui has been widely celebrated in the biotech world and among scientists. In 2016, he was chosen by Fortune magazine as one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders. In 2018, he was included on the medical 100 strong “Power List.” This year he was a Great Immigrants award recipient.

 Following his appointment, Slaoui diverged from the practice of Trump and administration billionaires who continue to manage business interests while in office. Slaoui divested from some of his financial interests in drug companies and signed on as a contractor taking a salary of $1.00 in order to avoid being subject to conflict-of-interest laws and regulations. He also resigned from the board of Moderna, the Boston firm working on a covid vaccine, and sold his shares in the company, promising to donate profits from the rising price of its stock to cancer research. In an interview with the New York Times he said he will review  his financial involvements in biotech firms which might be selected to develop covid vaccines. He has, however, refused to sell his shares in GlaxoSmithKline which he he says are for his “retirement.”

 Commenting on the role of immigrants in US life, Slaoui stated, “Immigration is a source of talent, innovation, diversity, energy, and renewal to all societies, and has been a key element underpinning the successes that the United States has enjoyed over the past decades — if not centuries.”


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