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- The head of the US government’s coronavirus vaccine initiative criticized biotech companies that have touted ties to Operation Warp Speed in press releases to boost shares.
- “There’s been a number of cases where companies have, frankly, made press releases that have frustrated the hell out of me because they misled, I think, their shareholders and their share price went up the roof just by saying the words Operation Warp Speed in the title of the press release,” Slaoui told Business Insider in a rare phone interview Wednesday.
- While he didn’t name companies, there have been few firms that fit the description.
- In May and June, tiny biotechs touted ties to the secretive program and sent their stocks surging.
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The head of Operation Warp Speed, the US government’s secretive coronavirus vaccine initiative, has had it with companies that put out press releases claiming they’re involved in the program.
In a rare interview with Business Insider, Moncef Slaoui said Wednesday that some companies have “frustrated the hell” out of him and have misled shareholders.
“There’s been a number of cases where companies have, frankly, made press releases that have frustrated the hell out of me because they misled, I think, their shareholders and their share price went up the roof just by saying the words Operation Warp Speed in the title of the press release,” Slaoui told Business Insider.
Slaoui didn’t name specific companies. Business Insider reported in June that some tiny biotech companies, specifically VaxArt and NantKwest, touted ties to Warp Speed in press releases.
That led to massive surges in the company’s stocks. VaxArt, for instance, started the year trading at $0.36 per share. On June 26, the company put out a press release titled “Vaxart’s COVID-19 Vaccine Selected for the U.S. Government’s Operation Warp Speed.” The stock surged to a record-high of roughly $17 per share by mid-July. It now trades at about $9.
These companies were not selected for Operation Warp Speed. Instead, the initiative has provided massive funding deals for to develop, test and manufacture six vaccine candidates made by Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Novavax, and Sanofi/GlaxoSmithKline.
At the time companies like VaxArt and NantKwest sent out press releases touting their work with Operation Warp Speed, Business Insider asked Health and Human Services about the veracity of the claims. Spokespeople for the agency declined to comment at the time.
NantKwest issued a joint press release on May 27 saying it had signed a collaboration deal with ImmunityBio, a privately held biotech that works closely with NantKwest. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire biotech entrepreneur, is CEO of both NantKwest and ImmunityBio.
“I wish we were able to discuss much more earlier,” Slaoui said.
Warp Speed was seeking to back eight vaccines that range across four different types of technology, Slaoui said.
If the program was publicly upfront about what it was looking for, Slaoui said “you’ll have 25 companies with their shares going up the roof, 25 with their shares going down, every board being sued, shareholders, et cetera, et cetera. Because people will speculate what is it we are going after.”
Now, with the major funding deals in place and announced, Slaoui said Warp Speed is undergoing a “natural progression” where it can talk more openly about its work.