WASHINGTON — The scientist leading the Trump administration’s coronavirus vaccine program will be allowed to remain a government contractor, a decision that permits him to avoid ethics disclosures required of federal employees and maintain his investments in pharmaceutical companies.
Two prominent watchdog groups as well as some Democrats in Congress had called for the Department of Health and Human Services to require that the scientist, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, a venture capitalist and a former executive at the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, fall under the same ethics rules as federal employees.
The office of the inspector general at H.H.S. responded this week that it could not require such a shift, citing the unusual role that Dr. Slaoui was playing in the administration amid the pandemic.
As the chief adviser for the vaccine program — called Operation Warp Speed — Dr. Slaoui is working on a contract that pays him $1. Under the arrangement, he is exempt from federal disclosure rules that would require him to list his outside positions, stock holdings and other potential conflicts of interest.
That arrangement has alarmed lawmakers, who have accused H.H.S. of helping Dr. Slaoui, an expert in molecular biology and immunology, duck the usual accountability required of government employees.
The groups that filed the May complaint, Public Citizen and Lower Drug Prices Now, argued for Dr. Slaoui to be classified as a “special government employee,” a tag that allows the federal government to hire outside experts for up to 130 days. The title would make him subject to ethics rules that also apply to regular government employees.
The $1 contract, the groups said, appears “designed primarily to allow Slaoui to maintain an extensive web of conflicting financial interests without the need to divest of, recuse from or disclose those conflicting interests” and “provides Slaoui with the opportunity to enrich himself, his colleagues and his employers.”
In its reply to the groups, an official in the inspector general’s office said that Dr. Slaoui’s appointment is expected to stretch beyond 200 days, well past what it said was the “applicable statutory time limit” for a special government employee.
The inspector general’s office “is not in a position to determine that the department’s decision was unreasonable when it pursued options other than an S.G.E. appointment,” the letter, dated July 13, concluded.
In his role, Dr. Slaoui has significant influence over financial commitments made by the government, which has so far provided little information about Warp Speed’s resources, which agencies the funding is coming from or how decisions are being made.
“The basic idea that he’s in a really privileged position with lots of resources to command and that he has a personal financial stake in the industry is really challenging,” said Margarida Jorge, the campaign director for Lower Drug Prices Now. “Everyone can appreciate that Slaoui has expertise in the development of vaccines, but expertise and ethics should not be mutually exclusive.”
A group of Democratic lawmakers, including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, separately wrote last month to Alex M. Azar II, the health secretary, asking for Dr. Slaoui to be designated a special government employee. They called Dr. Slaoui’s contract “an attempted end-run around federal ethics rules.”
Ms. Jorge said that her organization and other watchdog groups were planning to meet Wednesday afternoon to discuss new ways to challenge Dr. Slaoui’s status.
The Trump administration has invested nearly $4 billion in companies pursuing coronavirus vaccines. Last week, H.H.S. announced that the federal government will pay Novavax, a Maryland company that has never brought a product to market, $1.6 billion to expedite the development of a coronavirus vaccine.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated July 15, 2020
Is the coronavirus airborne?
- The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests. This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants. It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
What’s the best material for a mask?
Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?
- A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.
I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
- The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
What is pandemic paid leave?
- The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
- So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
- Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
- A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How can I protect myself while flying?
- If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
Dr. Slaoui spent his first days on the job in May trying to disentangle pieces of his stock portfolio and other ties to pharmaceutical interests. Before working for the Trump administration, he sat on the board of Moderna, a biotechnology firm pursuing a coronavirus vaccine. He sold his shares in the company after the value of his stock holdings soared following the release of preliminary vaccine trial data.
The Trump administration said at the time that Dr. Slaoui would donate the increased value to cancer research.
In an interview in May, Dr. Slaoui said he was determined to avoid conflicts and would re-evaluate any remaining associations if his financial interests stood to gain more from his new post.
An H.H.S. spokeswoman reiterated on Wednesday that Dr. Slaoui resigned from Moderna’s board and divested his equity, in addition to leaving advisory boards of companies “with even the appearance of conflict.”
“H.H.S. ethics officers have determined Dr. Slaoui’s contractor status, divestiture and board resignations put him in compliance with our robust department ethical standards,” the spokeswoman said.
Soon after Dr. Slaoui was brought on to Project Warp Speed, its leadership underwent further upheaval, in part because of his holdings, according to senior administration officials.
Dr. Peter Marks, a renowned federal scientist who devised and initially oversaw the Warp Speed project at the Food and Drug Administration, stepped aside from his role as its lead vaccine specialist, in part because of concern over what he saw as Dr. Slaoui’s potential conflicts of interest, the officials said. Dr. Marks is the director of the F.D.A.’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, the office that approves vaccines.