Chief Vaccine Scientist Will Not Be Forced to Disclose Pharmaceutical Stocks

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.

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.