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Trump vaccine leader Moncef Slaoui accused of sexual misconduct, removed from medical company board

GlaxoSmithKline said it fired the longtime pharmaceutical executive from the board of Galvani Bioelectronics after substantiating the allegations

Moncef Slaoui, a former GlaxoSmithKline executive, speaks in Washington on May 15 with President Donald Trump after being announced as the chief scientist of the White House's coronavirus vaccine initiative. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
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Moncef Slaoui, the pharmaceutical industry veteran and vaccine specialist who led President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, was fired from the board of a medical company Wednesday over allegations of sexual misconduct.

GlaxoSmithKline, the majority shareholder of Galvani Bioelectronics and Slaoui’s former longtime employer where he led vaccine development, announced it terminated Slaoui as Galvani chairman following an investigation triggered by a letter sent last month detailing alleged “sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct.”

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The alleged misconduct occurred “several years ago” and was aimed at a female colleague at GlaxoSmithKline while Slaoui also worked for the pharmaceutical giant, the company said.

Slaoui issued a written apology for the conduct later on Wednesday.

“I have the utmost respect for my colleagues and feel terrible that my actions have put a former colleague in an uncomfortable situation. I would like to apologize unreservedly to the employee concerned and I am deeply sorry for any distress caused,” he said in a statement. “I would also like to apologize to my wife and family for the pain this is causing.”

Trump tapped Slaoui to lead Operation Warp Speed in May 2020, putting him at the helm of an unprecedented effort to develop multiple vaccines to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The administration trumpeted Slaoui’s expertise as a former chief of vaccine development for GlaxoSmithKline when it chose him to co-lead the initiative.

The company said it hired a law firm, Morgan Lewis, to investigate the allegations after receiving the letter. The review substantiated the allegations and that the investigation is ongoing, it said.

“This action was prompted by one complaint which we acted on swiftly and decisively. This was the first sexual harassment allegation against Dr. Slaoui that we were made aware of,” said GlaxoSmithKline spokeswoman Kathleen Quinn. The company’s chief executive said in an email to employees that Slaoui’s name would be removed from its research and development facility in Rockville, Md.

“Dr. Slaoui’s behaviors are wholly unacceptable. They represent an abuse of his leadership position, violate company policies, and are contrary to the strong values that define GSK’s culture,’’ the company said.

Slaoui said in his written apology that he intended to “work hard to redeem myself,” adding, “I am taking a leave of absence from my current professional responsibilities effective immediately, to focus on my family.”

Chief executive Emma Walmsley sent an email to employees Wednesday that expressed her personal feelings.

“Since February, the highest levels of our company have been working to understand and address what happened. Protecting the woman who came forward and her privacy has been a critical priority throughout this time,” she wrote. “I respect and admire her courage and strength. I’ve spent many nights lately putting myself in her shoes. More than anything, this simply should not have happened.”

“On a personal level, I am shocked and angry about all of this, but I’m resolute,” she said. “I want to be clear that sexual harassment is strictly prohibited and will not be tolerated. Abuse of leadership position, in any form, will not be tolerated.”

Slaoui worked for decades at GlaxoSmithKline, where he rose to become the top vice president in charge of the company’s vaccine business for eight years. Slaoui has been credited with leading the creation of 14 vaccines.

Slaoui was chairman of Galvani, a bioelectronics company owned by GSK and Verily Life Sciences, which is part of Google parent Alphabet Inc., according to an administration news release at the time of his government appointment.

Slaoui’s role was criticized by some congressional Democrats and public interest groups who raised questions about this close ties to industry. His unusual contract arrangement with the government allowed him to maintain pharmaceutical company investments and avoid financial disclosures. He was allowed to retain his GlaxoSmithKline stock holdings while he led the vaccine development race last year.

As scientific adviser to Operation Warp Speed, Slaoui was involved in evaluating potential vaccines and helping the Trump administration pick which ones would get federal funding and advance purchase orders.

The development program succeeded in bringing three vaccines through FDA emergency-use authorization in record time, with two more in the pipeline, and orders of hundreds of millions of doses, a feat that received widespread scientific acclaim.

But the rollout of the vaccines was plagued for months by shortages of supply and distribution chaos. Responding recently in an article in The Washington Post to criticism from President Biden and his team about the Trump administration’s vaccine performance, Slaoui struck a combative note.

“Honestly I find that unwarranted, unwise and un-understandable,” said Slaoui, who resigned at the Biden administration’s request. “I’m amazed that people felt the need to belittle the work that was done.”