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GSK fires former US vaccine chief Slaoui from biotech board over sexual harassment allegations

Moncef Slaoui, the former head of Operation Warp Speed.
Moncef Slaoui, the former head of Operation Warp Speed.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

GlaxoSmithKline Plc fired former US vaccine czar Moncef Slaoui as chairman of a company it controls after an internal investigation found he sexually harassed an employee several years ago.

An investigation of Slaoui’s conduct substantiated allegations of harassment and inappropriate behavior and is ongoing, according to Glaxo, which is majority shareholder of the company, Galvani Bioelectronics.

Slaoui said on Wednesday that he would take a leave of absence from all professional responsibilities to focus on his family.

“I would like to apologize unreservedly to the employee concerned and I am deeply sorry for any distress caused,” Slaoui said in a statement, acknowledging his board termination. “I would also like to apologize to my wife and family for the pain this is causing.”

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Cambridge-based Centessa Pharmaceuticals, an online conglomerate of 10 biotechs launched by UK venture capital firm Medicxi, said on Thursday that Slaoui would step down from his position “effective immediately.” Slaoui was named chief scientific officer and adviser to Centessa last month.

Saurabh Saha, the chief executive officer of Centessa, said the company was “troubled to learn of yesterday’s news,” and is “committed to fostering a culture of respect that is free from harassment and discrimination of any kind.”

At Warp Speed, the 61-year-old immunologist steered the deployment of Covid-19 vaccines and therapies, helping secure hundreds of millions of doses from a range of developers. Before that, he spent more than three decades working in the pharmaceutical industry, including as chairman of Glaxo’s research and development, and the head of its vaccine program.

Following his retirement from the UK drugmaker, he joined the venture capital firm Medicxi as a partner.

“Slaoui’s behaviors represent an abuse of his leadership position and violate our company policies, our values and our commitment to trust,” Emma Walmsley, Glaxo’s chief executive officer, wrote in a letter to employees.

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“I am shocked and angry about all of this, but I’m resolute,” she continued. “I want to be clear that sexual harassment is strictly prohibited and will not be tolerated. Abuse of leadership position, in any form, will not be tolerated.”

The termination follows the receipt of a letter in February containing allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct toward an employee of Glaxo, which occurred several years ago when Slaoui still worked there. Glaxo said it immediately started an investigation with a law firm, overseen by the board.

Slaoui, a Belgian-American scientist who now resides in Philadelphia, resigned from Operation Warp Speed at the request of the Biden administration. He has continued to opine on the global vaccine roll-out on panels and in interviews however, and has advised European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. He was born in Morocco and holds a PhD in molecular biology and immunology.

Another pharma industry giant recently took swift action over office conduct. The company, Eli Lilly & Co., said in February that financial chief Joshua Smiley had resigned and would leave after the drugmaker became aware he was involved in an inappropriate personal relationship with an employee.

Anissa Gardizy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.