LETTER FROM MOROCCO
Telephone appointment is given at 5.30 am Washington time. The man sleeps little, wakes up before dawn to play sports. And work at the same time, of course. He then goes to his office in the American capital, where President Trump himself has given him a mission: to find a vaccine against Covid-19. Just that. Moncef Slaoui adopts a modest, almost restrained tone: “It was impossible to say no. “ On May 15, in the White House rose garden, he pledged to deliver several hundred million doses of the future antidote by the end of the year.
How was this 60-year-old millionaire researcher from Casablanca, Morocco, passionate about biology from the school benches, propelled to the head of this large-scale operation carried out jointly with the American army ? “I had no idea what was going to happen”, assures the specialist in immunology and molecular biology, that his colleagues describe as “A great optimist”.
Fourteen vaccines on the counter
Born in Agadir, he grew up in Casablanca and studied at the Mohammed-V high school, a then prestigious public establishment. In love with the natural sciences and marked by the death of his sister, who suffered from pertussis, he wanted to study medicine in France. “For accidental reasons, I found myself in biology at the Free University of Brussels”, smiles Moncef Slaoui, with a hint of Belgian accent in his voice, traces of the twenty-six years spent there.
After a post-doctorate at Harvard, he became a professor in a medical school in Belgium, then joined the global pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), where he headed the vaccines division until 2017. Over the course of his career, he has participated in the development of fourteen vaccines, including that against uterine cancer, which has contributed to its worldwide renown. In 2016, the researcher, who has since acquired Belgian and American nationalities, appears in the ranking of the 50 most influential personalities in the world established by the American economic magazine Fortune. And gives its name to a center for vaccine research in Rockville, Maryland.
In Morocco, his country of origin and heart, where “The anchorage remains very strong”, its notoriety, however, does not appeal to scientific authorities: “I have never been asked to help create anything in the area of research. When I was at GSK, I visited a few laboratories and centers in Casablanca and Ben Guerir, but there was never a follow-up. Countries that do not have large research budgets, such as Morocco, have every interest in creating opportunities for collaboration. “ Other nations in the Arab world have seized the opportunity, such as Qatar, where Dr. Slaoui has served on several administrative boards. “It’s a shame, I wanted to help my country on a voluntary basis”, continues Moncef Slaoui.
In the mid-1980s, the one who campaigned during his youth in the ranks of the National Union of Students of Morocco (UNEM) nevertheless tried to continue his research work in his country. In vain. “I taught for three years as a volunteer, and then they decided to stop the collaboration without my knowing why. I remember being frustrated because it didn’t interest anyone. “
“Morocco’s potential is almost zero”
Doctor of molecular biology Kamal El Messaoudi remembers these dashed hopes: “Moncef Slaoui kept saying that he did not want their money, but only to benefit his country from molecular biology, an important science for public health. Several years later, all of his dreams came back, and he was forced into exile, like many others who have chosen this path. “, says the former fellow student on his Facebook page.
If Morocco has since made progress in research and development, investment remains low and partnerships with the private sector too underdeveloped. The budget allocated to scientific research there recently reached 0.8% of GDP, compared to 0.36% in 2016, but remains far behind the average of 2.4% of the countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ( OECD). “It is above all the procedures for initiating this funding that are really problematic”, had admitted in 2019 the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Said Amzazi. As the quality of public education, shaken by multiple reforms without results, deteriorates, more and more highly qualified researchers, engineers or doctors leave the country.
Moncef Slaoui will never come back. “We have exceptional talents that are found today abroad and probably also in the country. But you have to be realistic: Morocco’s competitive potential in basic research, like other African countries, is almost zero “, he believes. The researcher, who now has the daunting task of leading the race for the coronavirus vaccine, says he wants to continue trying to help his country and stimulate the talents of tomorrow. Provided that Morocco gives him the means.
Summary of the series “Africa brings its stone to science”
Africa needs science to grow … and African data science to move forward. Whether it’s looking for a Covid-19 vaccine or fighting global warming, the continent is stepping up efforts to join the global research market. In a dozen articles, portraits and surveys, the correspondents of the World Africa tell the latest scientific advances, from Casablanca to Cape Town.