Brett Giroir, Trump’s coronavirus screening tsar, forced to step down as supervisor of vaccine project

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But after eight years of working on several vaccine projects, Giroir learned in 2015 that he had 30 minutes to resign or he would be fired. His annual performance appraisal at Texas A&M, the local newspaper reported, said he was “more interested in promoting you” than the health sciences center where he worked. He got low marks as a “team player”.

Now President Trump has entrusted Giroir with the crucial task of ending the massive lack of testing for the new coronavirus. Some governors have criticized the lack of federal aid for testing, which they say is necessary to implement Trump’s plan to reopen the economy.

This criticism drew attention to Giroir and his ability to deliver results under pressure. His years as director of the Texas vaccine project illustrate his style of operation, which includes sweeping statements about the impact of his work, which have not all turned out as some had hoped.

In two recent interviews with the Washington Post, Giroir blamed his ouster on internal politics at the university, not on problems with the project.

“If you’re not familiar with university politics, it makes politics in Washington look like a minor league scrum,” he said. He said he was “heartbroken” to leave the job before he finished work, but said vaccine projects have proven to be invaluable – and could help develop a coronavirus vaccine.

As for the assessment, Giroir, 59, said, “I am a team player. But not to people who act inappropriately, who are misogynistic and who are abusive towards others. I am not faithful to that. I have a loyalty to my faculty and my students. And that’s what matters to me. . . . It is better to be independent and defend your ethical position. When asked to explain his comment, he replied, “I’ll leave it there. ”

The combative response is classic Giroir, according to those who have worked with him over the years.

Robin Robinson, who, as director of the Federal Biological Advanced Research and Development Authority, oversaw a large grant for the Texas vaccine project, said in an interview that Giroir “had promised too much and under-delivered.” Said, “I’ve always had a good relationship with Brett. I know that he has a character and that he sometimes has trouble controlling it. “

However, Robinson, like other former associates interviewed for this report, said he trusted Giroir and welcomed Trump’s decision to choose Giroir for the job unofficially known as the virus test tsar. nation.

“It gets things done,” said Robinson. “Sometimes it’s a little different from what you would expect. But I’m sure he will do the job where he is right now. “

Giroir is an assistant secretary for health at the Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux, making him the main medical and scientific advisor to the secretary of the HHS, Alex Azar. He oversees the United States Public Health Commission Corps, which has 6,200 members and plays a major role in the fight against Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

On March 13, a week after Trump incorrectly said that “anyone who wants a test can do it,” Giroir was tasked with coordinating widely-criticized federal government virus testing programs, which initially included a defective product from Centers for Disease Control and prevention. Although he is not an official member of the White House Coronavirus task force, he is a regular presence at its meetings and often meets with Trump and Vice President Pence.

Although testing has increased since Giroir’s takeover, some state officials continue to complain about the lack of a coherent federal plan.

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker (D) said on NPR last week that “the truth is that the federal government has really been more of a barrier than a help in most testing problems. . . . We have received very little help from the federal government. “

New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said on his brother Chris Cuomo’s CNN show on Wednesday that he did not know Giroir. Asked by his brother about the man “in charge of the most important component” of the fight against the virus, the governor replied: “I take my word for it, but I would not know otherwise.”

A spokesperson for Giroir said he called the task force’s governors. A spokesperson for the Governor of New York did not respond to a request for comment.

As for complaints from some governors that they still lack testing capabilities, Giroir said in the interview that anyone “who needs a test” can get one.

“At the moment, that doesn’t mean that anyone who wants to take a test does so,” said Giroir. “There may be tens of millions of people who want a test, but they really have no indication [of the virus] for this test. ”

Giroir said the tests should be increased to make sure the virus does not reappear. He said the current capacity of 3.5 million tests per month must drop from 6 million to 8 million for a “gradual reopening” of the economy to occur, and said that capacity is increasing rapidly.

Giroir has also promised that “tens of millions” of serological tests will be available in a few weeks that will allow people to determine if they have had the virus.

Frank advice

In public, Giroir has been in tune with Trump, appearing alongside him during briefings in the admiral’s uniform that he is authorized to wear as director of the public health corps. In private, said Giroir, he does not hesitate to be frank with the president.

“His scientific advisers, including me, give him very candid advice every day,” said Giroir. “Any thought that does not happen, or that it does not listen to, is clearly false. . . . It is one of the most productive work environments at a higher level in which I have been involved. ”

Giroir, born in Louisiana and trained at Harvard University and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, began his career as a pediatrician and became chief medical officer at Children’s’s Medical Center in Dallas. He became interested in how to develop new technologies and, in 2004, he joined the Pentagon’s advanced defense research projects agency, where he oversaw efforts such as the development of a fan that could be carried on the battlefields.

He wanted to find new ways to fight deadly pandemics, whether it was a naturally occurring virus or a weapon of war. He concluded that new technologies were needed to rapidly manufacture massive amounts of vaccines. “I realized that the challenges were not only biological, but technical,” said Giroir.

Giroir returned to Texas in 2008 and eventually became vice-chancellor of Texas A&M University, promising to turn the region into one of the world’s hubs for vaccine development. He pushed the idea of ​​creating mobile laboratories that could produce vaccines where they were most needed, and promoted a facility that would allow a pharmaceutical partner to quickly produce millions of doses of vaccine for a crisis such as an influenza pandemic.

“My job is to facilitate transformation projects that benefit many people,” said Giroir at the time. “I would like to be part of something that can save millions of lives around the world.”

He told the Houston Chronicle in 2010 that “if it works, we will have a billion-dose-a-month vaccination facility in Texas, which would be by far the largest and most competent center in the world.”

In 2012, Giroir played a major role in securing a federal grant that enabled the university to become one of many centers in the United States that would be ready to rapidly produce vaccines in the event of a pandemic. “Once it is implemented, it will really solve the pandemic crisis,” he said at the time.

The university has partnered with GlaxoSmithKline, a leading manufacturer of vaccines. In a 2013 press release, Giroir said the company’s cell-based immunization program is “the most promising short-term flu vaccine technology” to improve the traditional methodology for using eggs.

When there was fear of an outbreak of Ebola in Texas, then Gov. Rick Perry (R) in 2014 appointed Giroir to chair a task force overseeing a disease control effort.

Sorry

In mid-2015, a new president, Michael Young, arrived at Texas A&M. Young asked some senior university officials to resign, while offering to keep them in their jobs for at least a year, Giroir told the Post. Giroir said he refused to sign the letter.

Giroir was called to a meeting where he said he was told he had 30 minutes to resign or that he would be fired. Calling himself “heartbroken” for failing to complete his mission, he resigned. Young, who is still president of the university, declined to comment.

Giroir, in response to questions about his eviction, sent the Post an editorial published at the time in the local newspaper, the Bryan Eagle. The editorial berated Young for expelling Giroir, saying Giroir had increased federal research grants to the university’s Health Science Center by 65% ​​and that he had been “treated badly” by the school.

In addition, the Eagle reported that the university said in a statement: “It is inaccurate and misleading at best to attribute growth in this area solely to Dr. Giroir. L’Aigle, who obtained Giroir’s assessment, said that even though Giroir had a score of 4 or 5 for his management and related skills, on a scale where 5 is the highest score, he had 2 or 3 in the areas of “loyalty / commitment”. “And” team player “.

The vaccine manufacturing center was completed after Giroir left, but his prediction that this would allow GlaxoSmithKline to produce a revolutionary vaccine did not materialize. The company said in a statement that “the research behind the Texas A&M project has not been successful,” which prompted the federal government to suspend funding.

The facility was acquired by an American subsidiary of a Japanese company, Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, which agreed to respond quickly if there is a federal request to develop a vaccine.

John White, who as chairman of the Board of Regents recruited Giroir to the university, said in an interview, “Brett was the architect of all these wonderful things that we had put in place. Asked about Giroir’s impact assessment, he said: “It’s hard to sum it up because the journey continues. . . . Do I want everything to be accelerated with more tangible results? Sure, but I’m not at all disappointed to know where it has been and where it is going. ”

Giroir defended the projects. He said that the Fujifilm facility is available to quickly produce a vaccine if the federal government requests it, as originally planned, and he stated that his work laid the groundwork for such work, including possibly a vaccine for covid-19.

From his work on vaccines in Texas, he said, “It is not at all responsible for where we are. But the work has really led to our ability to get a large-scale vaccine potentially in a year or a year and a half instead of five or seven years. “

Giroir also noted that a separate facility he helped develop, which uses herbal technology to produce vaccines, is working on a possible product for the coronavirus. “It may work, it may not work,” he said. “But if you want a billion doses in a short time, the plant is the only way to do it. “

New role

Giroir, after being ousted from Texas A&M, held various positions, including chairing a commission to review the health care system at Veterans Affairs. With Trump’s election, Giroir found a new opportunity.

Trump appointed him in 2017 to be assistant secretary of health at HHS. The nomination languished for months when some Democrats questioned Giroir’s commitment to women’s health issues, but it was confirmed.

Trump appointed Giroir as the acting Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration in late 2019, a position he held for two months while a new executive awaited confirmation.

So far, some of Giroir’s most important work in administration has revolved around research on fetal stem cell tissue, which some scientists believe may be needed to find a treatment for the coronavirus. Some curators have called for a ban on the use of fetal tissue.

Giroir said at a meeting in 2018 at the National Institutes of Health that an alternative must be as reliable as fetal tissue. But HHS later announced restrictions on the ability of some researchers to obtain federal funding for fetal tissue research, arguing that the importance of “promoting the dignity of life from conception to natural death is the one of the top priorities of President Trump’s administration. ” Trump’s political advisers liked the announcement but dismayed the scientists. Giroir’s point of view on the issue seems to contradict it with White House policy.

“I think it’s very clear that we don’t have models that completely recap what fetal tissue does,” Giroir told the Post. “And I mean honestly, what I advise the president, or what’s going on, is executive privilege. And I think it has been widely reported that it was the president’s decision on the way forward. It was a presidential decision. And he is the president; he manages to make these decisions. ”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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