Moncef Slaoui was born in Agadir, Morocco, and grew up in Casablanca. Even though both of his parents had only high school educations, they were dedicated to creating educational opportunities for their five children. The death of his younger sister from whooping cough as a child motivated Slaoui to study biology and medicine.
Slaoui earned an undergraduate degree in biology and a PhD in molecular biology and immunology from Free University of Brussels. He came to the United States to pursue postdoctoral studies at Harvard Medical School and Tufts University School of Medicine.
During a nearly 30-year career at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), including a position as head of research and development, Slaoui oversaw the development of a number of vaccines, including vaccines to prevent cervical cancer, gastroenteritis, shingles, pneumococcal disease, and Ebola. Slaoui spent 27 years researching a vaccine for malaria. Although largely eradicated in developed countries, malaria still kills more than 400,000 people annually — most of them children in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2015, Mosquirix, the world's first vaccine for the dreaded disease, was approved by the European Medical Agency. “I cried — it’s very personal,” Slaoui recalled on hearing the news of the vaccine’s approval after his decades-long quest. He retired from GSK in 2017. Two years later, the first doses of the malaria vaccine Slaoui and his team at GSK had developed were administered to children in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi in a World Health Organization–coordinated pilot program.
In May 2020, Slaoui was tapped by President Trump as chief advisor for Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government interagency effort to accelerate development of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. The goal is the delivery of 300 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by January 2021, and Congress has thus far allocated almost $10 billion to support the effort. Operation Warp Speed is upending the way vaccines are normally developed. Protocols for the vaccine trials will be overseen by the federal government rather than by drug companies. Furthermore, large-scale manufacturing of the most promising vaccines will begin well before the demonstration of vaccine safety and efficacy, helping to ensure that vaccines that are successful during the later phases of human trials will be available to the public more quickly.
Reflecting on immigrants’ contributions to American life, Slaoui recently said: “Immigration is a source of talent, innovation, diversity, energy, and renewal to all societies, and has been a key element underpinning the successes that the United States has enjoyed over the past decades — if not centuries.”