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Moncef Slaoui, Trump's vaccine chief, "very concerned" about GOP vaccine hesitancy

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The former head of Operation Warp Speed says he thinks "we need to do every effort we can to explain to people that vaccines have nothing to do with politics."

Video Transcript

MARGARET BRENNAN: Part of our continuing efforts to learn from experience in terms of the coronavirus pandemic, we spoke Saturday with Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the former chief scientific advisor of Operation Warp Speed, the vaccine development effort under the Trump Administration. President Biden has said that the Trump Administration had not contracted for enough vaccine doses when he took office. As recently as a month ago, Biden blamed the Trump Administration, saying--

JOE BIDEN: America had no real plan to vaccinate most of the country. My predecessor failed to order enough vaccines, failed to mobilize the effort to administer the shots, failed to set up vaccine centers. That changed the moment we took office.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is that fair?

MONCEF 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 we knew there 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.

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

MONCEF 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 the like and the participation of FEMA, those were not parts of the plant. 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 this was all part of the plan.

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.

MONCEF SLAOUI: I think we have failed to communicate the fact that vaccine doses availability is going to be slow over time 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 manage the expectation.

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 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 accelerated it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: 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 a manufacturing plan like that in place?

MONCEF 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 field finish, 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.

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

MONCEF SLAOUI: No. No, no, no. But we had a discussion, the HHS 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?

MONCEF SLAOUI: Things didn't start very quickly. 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 fast as normally it should have been.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What we are seeing now, Dr. Slaoui, in our own CBS polling is 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?

MONCEF SLAOUI: I'm very concerned, very concerned, that for political motivation people decide to actually place themselves and the people around them in harm's way by refusing to be vaccinated. 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're 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.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why do you think Republicans are now hesitant to take it?

MONCEF SLAOUI: 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.

MARGARET BRENNAN: 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?

MONCEF SLAOUI: I do think it makes a difference. I think people project images and can convey important messaging.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The response to the virus continues to be a political issue. This week, Senator Rand Paul mocked Dr. Fauci for continuing to mask after he was vaccinated.

RAND PAUL: We're not spreading the infection. Isn't it just theater?

ANTHONY FAUCI: No, it's not.

RAND PAUL: You had the vaccine, and you're wearing two masks. Isn't that theater?

ANTHONY FAUCI: No, that's not-- here we go again with the theater.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think people who've been vaccinated need to still wear masks?

MONCEF 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. It's an act of, frankly, civility, I would say, vis-a-vis the people around us who have not yet been vaccinated. So yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you feel like you were stigmatized for having worked for the Trump Administration?

MONCEF SLAOUI: 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 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 emotions overtook rationality.

MARGARET BRENNAN: 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?

MONCEF SLAOUI: It did come at a very significant financial cost to me, to be honest, and it is worth it. 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 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 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?

MONCEF SLAOUI: 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. 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. I think it's imperative. I think it's a matter that may cost $500 million or a billion a year. It's a drop in the ocean compared to the cost of the pandemic on a daily basis.

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

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

MARGARET BRENNAN: Our full interview with Dr. Slaoui is on our website at facethenation.com