Transcript: Moncef Slaoui on “Face the Nation”

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The following is a transcript of an interview with Moncef Slaoui, former Operation Warp Speed adviser, that aired Sunday, March 21, 2021, on “Face the Nation.”


MARGARET BRENNNAN: Dr. Slaoui, thank you so much for joining us. You know, President Biden said that he would reach 100 million doses within the first hundred days. He reached that goal in 58. What do you make of that accomplishment?

DOCTOR MONCEF SLAOUI: Well, first, I think it’s great that a hundred million doses of vaccines have been delivered. I do think that was a very obvious objective to be achieved and it was very clear it was going to be achieved substantially earlier than 100 days in the president’s, you know, presidency. So I guess it was a very lowly defined objective, but the most important factor is the 100 million doses have been given. And that’s that’s what counts.

MARGARET BRENNAN: President Trump gave an interview this week in which he said that without his work, there would not have been a vaccine for years. Do you agree with that?

DR. SLAOUI: Well, I think the operation has helped accelerate the development of a number of vaccine, by either creating more financial incentive for a company like Pfizer or for the other five companies by actually accelerating, participating operationally into the development of the vaccine. And also, of course, financing the research and development. I am convinced that vaccines would have come later and certainly less vaccine if only Pfizer had made it. Clearly they were able to develop this vaccine on their own.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, Pfizer, Moderna, they had been working on these mRNA vaccines. Was the difference that US taxpayers basically subsidized what Moderna and Johnson & Johnson were doing?

DR. SLAOUI: The US taxpayer money has indeed participated in the financing of all the expenses, the research and development, the build up in manufacturing. But in exchange of that, of course, this was the cost to acquire a hundred million- with options to more hundreds of millions of doses as we are experiencing. So it’s part of the cost. I mean, ultimately, $20 per dose of vaccine is actually a good cost for a vaccine dose most vaccines in the private market are sold for (00:02:30) a hundred or $200 a dose.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you were just talking about supply, you know, President Biden has said that the Trump administration had not contracted for enough vaccine doses when he took office. And here’s what he said. As recently as a month ago, Biden blamed the Trump administration, saying “America has no real plan to vaccinate most of the country. My predecessor, as my mother would say, God love him, failed to order enough vaccine, failed to mobilize the effort to administer the shots, failed to set up vaccine centers. That changed the moment we took office.” Is that fair?

DR. SLAOUI: I think that’s a very negative description of the reality. I do think that we had plans, and in fact 90% of what’s happening now is the plan that we had. Of course the first thing was to accelerate the development of the vaccine. We contracted specifically 100 million doses of vaccine, but also built into the contract options to acquire more vaccines once we knew they are effective. And the plan was to order more vaccines when- when we knew they are more effective. So I think what’s happening is right. But I think what’s happening is, frankly, what was the plan. Substantially what was the plan. Therefore I think it is quite a- quite a negative–

MARGARET BRENNAN: So 90% of what’s happening now–

DR. SLAOUI: Yes, I would think so. I think what was not planned–

MARGARET BRENNAN: You say 90% of what is happening now is what you put into place? 

SLAOUI: I think in terms of manufacturing and supply and distribution, which is the physical shipment of vaccine to immunization site, the answer is yes, because there’s a ramp up in manufacturing, as always happens. And that’s what we are experiencing and seeing. I do think that in terms of immunization and shots in arms, in particular the large vaccination sites in sports arenas and- and the likes and the participation of FEMA, those were not parts of the plan and they are participating to accelerate, I think to some extent, the immunization. But the bulk of vaccine distribution is happening in the health care centers and now in the pharmacies. And that was all part of the plan.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Five days after President Biden took office, he announced agreements to buy 200 million doses from Moderna and Pfizer. When the Trump administration left, they’d ordered 400 million doses. Why was it necessary for all those doses to be purchased by the Biden administration? Did- did you leave the cupboards bare, is the- is the criticism?

DR. SLAOUI: I frankly don’t know how those doses will be actually used, as you know, those doses will be distributed- will be available, manufactured over the summer, starting somewhere in June and then in July and August. As the president has said, by the month of June, which was the original plan, most of adult Americans over the age of 18 that want to be vaccinated will have been vaccinated. So the- the additional vaccine doses may be useful to immunize pediatric population. But as you know, also the plan was and the expectation was to have the Johnson and Johnson one shot vaccine complete its development, which it did in February, and be approved. And another 100 million people can be vaccinated with 100 million doses that we ordered. So in effect, there- there will be enough vaccine doses by the month of June to immunize 300 million people, which is broadly the bulk of the US population. That was frankly the plan.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mhm. 

SLAOUI: So the additional 200 million doses that have been acquired and to be delivered in the summer, you know, we’ll see what there- what there use will be.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Where do you think that there were flaws in the strategy, because certainly on the vaccine rollout, we hear from governors, we hear from those who have to do this last mile of administering it, that there were problems, that there still are problems.

DR. SLAOUI: Yes. I think, I mean, I think there were two areas for me that are key lessons to learn in terms of how things should have been done differently. One is on the communication, and I think we have failed to communicate the fact that vaccine doses availability is going to be, you know, slow over time because- because we went so fast. There is no stock of vaccine. It was impossible to have enough vaccine doses quickly enough compared to the expectations. So we were unable, as we communicated in the month of November and December and January, to- to manage the expectation. That’s one. And I think the second thing is indeed, in the actual immunization, the approach taken was a philosophical approach that was frankly part of what the previous administration philosophy is, which is the federal government is going to provide vaccine. The states should be accountable for actually immunizing. And that’s- that’s the principle on which we have worked. Clearly, there was a need for the states to actually learn, which they did in reality. And that’s how improvements are happening now and also for the central government to participate in that learning process and accelerate it. So those two areas definitely could have been done better. And I hope we will definitely remember the learnings from- from this instance. I hope we never have to use it again. But if we were, definitely more interaction between the federal government and the states earlier.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And what about manufacturing, because one of the things that President Biden did do was to get Merck, a competitor to Johnson & Johnson, to step up and help them produce supply to make up for their own shortfall. Did Operation Warp Speed have the manufacturing plan like that in place?

DR. SLAOUI: So the discussion with Merck had started already prior to the new administration taking office, including discussions around making available their facilities for- definitely on the short term doing what’s called the fill finish, which which is the putting vaccines into the sterile vials and then over a longer period of time to manufacture the bulk vaccine itself. And they have been completed under this administration. And I think it’s very, very good. And it’s excellent that the industry goes beyond its competition- competitive scenarios and- and- and work together. Now, the solutions are going to be, frankly, effective in the month of maybe May and June. It takes a while for a manufacturing site, even if it exists already, to be validated and approved by the FDA to do something. You know, you have to approve the people. You have to approve the processes. You have to test them. That takes time. And, you know, it will accelerate towards the tail end of the- of the distribution of this vaccine.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But just to clarify, was President Trump going to order Merck to do this?

DR. SLAOUI: No, no, no. But we had a discussion, the HHS has had discussions with Merck to come to an agreement to use Merck’s facilities for pandemic purposes. Yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think that President Trump’s refusal to concede the election caused problems in the handoff to the Biden administration when it comes to vaccines?

DR. SLAOUI: Well, when I was still in the Operation, I did express in one interview the other the surprise that there were not a lot of interaction, at least at my level, of discussing how things will go in terms of the transition, which was one of the reasons, frankly, I decided to stay beyond my original plan, which was to- to- to- to move on once to vaccines are approved, which happened by the middle of the month of December. So things- things didn’t start very quickly.  Now, the reality, frankly, is that everybody stayed in the role- the people that were involved, except for myself. And my successor I had as of the middle of the month of January, many, many interactions with him on several phone calls and discussions and also beyond after the administration was there. So I don’t think- I don’t think there’s been in terms of execution and operations, I don’t think there was any changes or delays. Maybe in terms of ownership and full understanding by the new administration of what was going on, it’s possible that it was not as- as fast as normally it should have been.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  So what we are seeing now, Dr. Slaoui in our own CBS polling, is that starting in about mid-January, that hesitation among in particular African-Americans to take the vaccine began to ebb. They became more willing to take it. But we’re also seeing that Republicans, particularly those under the age of 65, are showing hesitation to taking a shot in the arm. What do you attribute that to?

DR. SLAOUI: Well, I think it’s really concerning that there are hesitations in the population and we need to work very hard regardless of the political positioning of people, that people understand that vaccines are very important and are going to help us really manage and control this pandemic. I’m thrilled to know and to indeed see that the African-American and Hispanic populations are gaining momentum in terms of accepting to be vaccinated. Rightly so. We had invested enormous efforts during the clinical trials in recruiting more of the diverse population to be represent- for the trials to be representative of the US population makeup so that that has worked and it continues to work. And I think it’s- it’s very exciting. I’m very concerned, very concerned that for political motivation, people decide to actually place themselves and the people around them in harms’ way by refusing to be vaccinated. I think- I think we need to do every effort we can to explain to people that vaccines have nothing to do with politics. These vaccines are safe. They are highly effective. They’re going to help them protect themselves and protect the people around them from the spread of this virus and critically from the potential appearance of new variants. Because God knows, someday, if this virus continues to circulate uncontrolled someday, a bad variant may come up. Fortunately, it’s not the case yet, but the variant that escaped the vaccine protection could come up. And the best thing we can do is immunize everybody as quickly as possible because that just shuts up the virus.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you are saying and President Trump has taken credit for the work on the vaccine. Why do you think Republicans are now hesitant to take it?

DR. SLAOUI: Frankly, I- I don’t know. It’s beyond my rational thinking. I’m a scientist, not a politician, but I would hope that President Trump and others in the Republican Party should really work hard to engage more Republicans to accept to be vaccinated. It’s the right thing to do.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, the president Trump has said he’s taken the vaccine, but he chose not to do so on camera. Do you think that would have made a difference?

DR. SLAOUI: I do think it makes a difference, I think people project images and can convey important messaging. I saw that, for instance, the prime minister in the UK with the AstraZeneca unsafety, I think two days ago was immunized in public and said this vaccine is safe. All the data show it’s safe. I’m going to take it. And that’s very, very important.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You know, this continues to be the response to the virus continues to be a political issue. This week, Senator Rand Paul mocked Dr. Fauci for continuing the mask after he was vaccinated. Do you think people who have been vaccinated need to still wear masks?

DR. SLAOUI: I do think as long as the herd immunity levels have not yet been attained, that people who have been vaccinated should continue wearing a mask when in public and in crowded areas, because what we don’t know yet is whether the vaccine prevents replication of the virus and therefore that these people who are protected themselves may be carrier of the virus and infecting others. That’s the reason why people who are vaccinated should be wearing a mask. It’s an act of, frankly, you know, civility I would say, vis a vis the people around us who have not yet been vaccinated. So, yes. But I would hope by- by this summer that we would have reached the level of vaccination in the population such that we could start dispensing from it, except maybe in highly, highly dense settings such as, I don’t know, you know, a concert or something where people are really  very close to each other.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So in that circumstance of going into those crowded areas, a sports arena to a concert, do you think that vaccine should be required to go into a plane, for example, and to travel? Should there be vaccine passports?

DR. SLAOUI: I think it will depend, in my view, on how much the pandemic is under control and the virus replication is under control. If there is very little vaccine circulating, I think personally that the personal freedom is, of course, very important and should- and should go on.

If, you know, we may find ourselves in a situation because there is still too much virus circulating that we’ll have lockdowns and things like that, I would- I would actually personally agree that unless people are vaccinated, there are some areas and some activities that they should not- that they should not be doing. And this exists. For instance, physicians have to be vaccinated against hepatitis B because they- they run the risks to acquire it, but also they run the risk potentially to give it to their patients.  So these settings exist. That’s for certain activities, you should be vaccinated because- because that’s how you protect the population.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Did you have a plan for that? And do you think that those requirements would incentivize people to get a shot in the arm?

DR. SLAOUI: There wasn’t a plan about making vaccination mandatory, and frankly, the operation was really focused on discovering, developing, manufacturing and physically distributing the vaccine, not even immunizing. So we haven’t looked into that. I’m more here talking, frankly, on my- my personal perspective. I think that people should be vaccinated unless there is a contraindication for them. Now, you know, individual liberties are very important, too, but in the face of global population risk, I think personally individual freedom should listen more and, you know, accept certain restrictions. Exactly the same reason we stop at a red light or at a stop sign. There are certain rules that allow society to live together. And when we have a new virus that came in, certain rules should be applied to allow us to continue to live together normally.

MARARET BRENNAN: On a personal level, I wonder now that you’re in private life, do you feel like you’re stigmatized for having worked for the Trump administration?

DR. SLAOUI: Frankly, with the- with- with time, the one thing I want to focus on is I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to help and participate to allow us to have vaccine and control this pandemic. That’s the only thing that counts. There were moments, frankly, where I told myself, oh my God, why did I get myself into this? But they never lasted long because the mission is way more important than- than- than those emotional moments. I do believe that it’s a mistake to politicize a health issue. It’s a big mistake. Many people probably have died or suffered because the whole situation became so political that, you know, emotions overtook rationality. But at the same time, I have to say, I’m so glad that all the ecosystem of the pharmaceutical biotechnology, academic research really immediately coalesced together and worked tirelessly to make vaccines in a period of 10 months, which is just extraordinary.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, I know Senator Elizabeth Warren took aim at you because you had worked for Moderna, a company that was part of Operation Warp Speed. You then went and you sold your stock in the company, so this came at a cost to you. But you’re saying you think it was worth it? 

DR. SLAOUI: It did come at a very significant financial cost to me, to be honest, and it is worth it. My personal values have always been about impact on people’s life much more than anything financial, so I don’t have an issue with that. I had major issues with Senator Elizabeth Warren because, as I told her in a video, I don’t know you and therefore I don’t judge your values. You don’t know me. You can’t decide because I was a pharmaceutical executive that I am a corrupt person and I’m doing this to make money because that’s- I know that’s not the case. And I worked for nine months, day and night. I wasn’t paid. I didn’t ask to be paid. I didn’t want to be paid. I sold my shares in Moderna. The one thing I decided I didn’t want to do was my- selling my shares in GlaxoSmithKline, but I agreed to give any gains, if they were to happen, to research. I couldn’t do more than that. And frankly, now it’s behind me. The one thing that counts is we have vaccines, and I’m glad I was part of the team that helped deliver that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Bottom line, do you think America is prepared for the next pandemic, and what do you think needs to be done differently now by the current administration?

DR. SLAOUI: I think it’s a super important question and one I discussed actually with my successor at- at the helm of the operation. We have to be better prepared, and the preparedness, in my view, should in particular include availability of manufacturing capabilities, which means manufacturing sites, manufacturing equipment and manufacturing people that are running the manufacturing of vaccines on an ongoing basis. I- I draw a parallel with the army. When we discover aircrafts, we manufacture them. Pilots fly them every day. It costs a lot of money, but it gets us ready and prepared in case of an invasion or a war. Well, we should be having laboratories and manufacturing sites dedicated to discovering, developing, manufacturing and stockpiling vaccines, even if they are not useful now against known potential pathogens that can be pandemic agents. Because either if there is a pandemic, God forbid, we may already have a vaccine against one of these pathogens or we would at least have the organization ready, validated to make vaccines even faster than we did this time. I think it’s imperative. I think it’s a matter that may cost $500 million or a billion dollars a year. It’s a drop in the ocean compared to the cost of the pandemic on a daily basis. I remember the lockdown being valued at about $20 to $23 billion a day. That’s its costs, economical costs. 

So a billion dollars a year is- is definitely the right investment to be prepared.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Did the Biden administration tell you they were going to do that?

DR. SLAOUI: No, but I know that Dr. David Kessler was very interested in proposals that I had actually made in 2016 along the lines I just described, and I hope there will be a follow up. I’m having discussions with the European Union president along exactly the same line. They’re very interested also to be prepared. And a number of some European countries like France or Belgium are also discussing. I think it’s the right thing to do. We have to learn from this pandemic in a way that makes us ten times better prepared for, unfortunately, the next one. It may happen next year. It may happen in a hundred years. We don’t know, but we should be prepared.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Dr. Slaoui, thank you for your time today. 

DR. SLAOUI: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me. 

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