WASHINGTON – Brett Giroir, the federal official overseeing coronavirus testing efforts, says that his experience working on vaccine development projects at Texas A&M University helped prepare him for this historic moment. He once said that his vaccine effort was so vital that “the fate of 50 million people will rely on us getting this done.”
But after eight years of work on several vaccine projects, Giroir was told in 2015 he had 30 minutes to resign or he would be fired. His annual performance evaluation at Texas A&M, the local newspaper reported, said he was “more interested in promoting yourself” than the health science center where he worked. He got low marks on being a “team player.”
Now President Donald Trump has given Giroir the crucial task of ending the massive shortfall of tests for the novel coronavirus. Some governors have blasted the lack of federal help on testing, which they say is necessary to enact Trump’s plan for reopening the economy.
That criticism has focused attention on Giroir and whether he can deliver results under pressure. His years as director of the Texas vaccine project illustrate his operating style, which includes sweeping statements about the impact of his work, not all of which turned out as some had hoped.
During two recent interviews with The Washington Post, Giroir blamed his ouster on internal politics at the university, not on any problems with the project.
“If you’re not familiar with academic politics, it makes politics in Washington look like a minor league scrimmage,” he said. He said he was “heartbroken” to leave the position before his work was done, but he said that the vaccine projects have proved valuable – and might contribute to the development of a coronavirus vaccine.
As for the evaluation, Giroir, 59, said, “I’m a team player. But not to people who act inappropriately, who are misogynistic and who are abusive to other people. I don’t have a loyalty to that. I have a loyalty to my faculty and my students. And that’s what I care about. … It’s better to be independent and stand your ethical ground.” Asked to explain his comment, he said, “I’ll just leave it at that.”
The combative response is classic Giroir, according to those who have worked with him over the years.
Robin Robinson, who as the director of the federal Biological Advanced Research and Development Authority oversaw a major grant for the Texas vaccine project, said in an interview that Giroir “over-promised and under-delivered.” He said, “I always had a good relationship with Brett. I know he has a temper and he sometimes has a very difficult time controlling it.”
Still, Robinson, like other former associates interviewed for this report, said that he has confidence in Giroir and praised Trump’s decision to pick Giroir for the job informally known as the nation’s virus testing czar.
“He does get things done,” Robinson said. “Sometimes it’s a little different than what one might expect. But I feel confident that he will do the job where he is right now.”
Giroir serves as the assistant secretary for health in the Department of Health and Human Services, making him the top medical and science adviser to HHS Secretary Alex Azar. He oversees the U.S. Public Health Service Commission Corps, which has 6,200 members and is playing a major role in fighting covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
On March 13, a week after Trump said falsely that “anybody that wants a test can get a test,” Giroir was given the responsibility of coordinating the federal government’s widely criticized virus testing programs, which initially included a faulty product from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While he is not a formal member of the White House coronavirus task force, he is a regular presence at its meetings and often confers with Trump and Vice President Pence.
Although testing has increased since Giroir took over, some state officials continue to complain that the federal government lacks a coherent plan.
Illinois Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said on NPR last week that “the truth is that the federal government has really been more of a hindrance than a help in most of the testing issues. … We got very little help from the federal government.”
New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday on brother Chris Cuomo’s CNN show that he wasn’t familiar with Giroir. Asked by his brother about the man “in charge of the most important component” of dealing with the virus, the governor responded: “I’ll take your word that he exists, but I wouldn’t know otherwise.”
A Giroir spokeswoman said he has been on task-force calls to governors. A spokesman for the New York governor did not respond to a request for comment.
As for the complaints from some governors that they still lack testing capabilities, Giroir said in the interview that anyone who “needs a test” can get one.
“That does not mean at this point in time that anyone who wants a test gets a test,” Giroir said. “There may be tens of millions of people who want a test, but they really have no indication [of the virus] for that test.”
Giroir said testing must be increased to ensure that the virus does not resurge. He said the current capability of 3.5 million tests per month needs to increase to 6 million to 8 million for a “gradual reopening” of the economy to occur, and he said such capacity is growing quickly.
Separately, Giroir promised that “tens of millions” of serology tests will be available within a few weeks that enable people to determine whether they have had the virus.
Publicly, Giroir has been in sync with Trump, appearing alongside him at briefings in the admiral’s uniform he is entitled to wear as director of the public health corps. In private, Giroir said, he has no hesitation about being blunt with the president.
“His scientific advisers, including me, provide him very frank advice every single day,” Giroir said. “Any thought that does not happen, or he does not listen, is blatantly false. … It’s one of the most productive working environments at a senior level I’ve been involved in.”
Giroir, born in Louisiana and educated 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 Medical Center in Dallas. He grew interested in how to develop new technologies, and in 2004 he joined the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where he oversaw efforts such as the development of a ventilator that could be carried onto battlefields.
He wanted to find new ways to fight deadly pandemics, whether a virus occurred naturally or as a weapon of war. He concluded that new technology was needed to quickly make massive amounts of vaccines. “I realized the challenges were not just biological but engineering,” Giroir said.
Giroir returned to Texas in 2008 and eventually became vice chancellor at Texas A&M University, vowing to transform the region into one of the world’s hubs for vaccine development. He pushed the idea of creating mobile labs that could produce vaccines where they were most needed, and promoted a facility that would enable a pharmaceutical partner to quickly produce millions of doses of vaccine for a crisis such as an influenza pandemic.
“My job is to facilitate transformational projects that benefit lots of people,” Giroir said at the time. “I would like to be part of something that can save millions of lives worldwide.”
He told the Houston Chronicle in 2010 that “If this works, we’ll have a billion-dose-per-month vaccine facility in Texas, which would be by far the largest and most capable center in the world.”
In 2012, Giroir played a major role in obtaining a federal grant that enabled the university to become one of several U.S. centers that would be prepared to quickly produce vaccines in a pandemic. “Once it’s implemented, it really will solve the pandemic crisis,” he said at the time.
The university partnered with GlaxoSmithKline, a leading vaccine manufacturer. In a 2013 news release, Giroir said the company’s cell-based vaccine program was “the most promising near term influenza vaccine technology” to improve upon the traditional methodology of using eggs.
When there was fear of an outbreak of Ebola virus cases in Texas, then-Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, in 2014 appointed Giroir as chairman of a task force overseeing an effort to fight the disease.
In mid-2015, a new president, Michael Young, arrived at Texas A&M after a stint as president of the University of Washington. Young asked some senior officials at the university 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 summoned to a meeting at which he said he was told he had 30 minutes to resign or he would be fired. Declaring himself “heartbroken” over having failed to complete his mission, he resigned. Young, who is still university president, declined to comment.
Giroir, in response to questions about his ouster, sent The Post an editorial published at the time in the local newspaper, the Bryan Eagle. The editorial chastised Young for having forced out Giroir, saying Giroir had increased federal research grants to the university’s Health Science Center by 65 percent and was “treated badly” by the school.
Separately, the Eagle reported that the university said in a statement, “It is inaccurate and disingenuous at best to attribute growth in this area solely to Dr. Giroir.” The Eagle, which obtained Giroir’s evaluation, said that while Giroir had a grade of 4 or 5 for his management and related skills, on a scale in which 5 is the highest mark, he had a 2 or 3 in areas of “loyalty/commitment” and “team player.”
The vaccine manufacturing center was completed after Giroir’s departure, but his prediction that it would enable GlaxoSmithKline to produce a groundbreaking vaccine did not pan out. The company said in a statement that the “research underpinning the Texas A&M project did not prove fruitful,” leading federal authorities to halt funding.
The facility was acquired by a U.S. subsidiary of a Japanese company, Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, which has agreed to respond promptly 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 we had put in place.” Asked to assess Giroir’s impact, he said, “It is just difficult to sum it up because the journey continues. . . . Do I wish everything would have gone faster with more tangible results? Sure, but I’m not disappointed at all where it’s been and where it’s going.”
Giroir defended the projects. He said the Fujifilm facility is available to rapidly produce a vaccine if one is requested by the federal government, just as originally envisioned, and he said his work has laid the foundation for such work, possibly including a vaccine for covid-19.
Of his vaccine work in Texas, he said, “It’s not entirely responsible for where we are by any means. But the work has really led to our ability to get a vaccine up to scale 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 plant-based 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, plant-based is the only way to get it done.”
Giroir, after being ousted from Texas A&M, took a variety of positions, including chairing a commission that reviewed the health-care system at Veterans Affairs. With Trump’s election, Giroir found a new opportunity.
Trump nominated him in 2017 to be assistant secretary for health at HHS. The nomination languished for months as some Democrats questioned Giroir’s commitment to women’s health issues, but he was confirmed.
Trump named Giroir as acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration in late 2019, a position he held for two months while a new leader awaited confirmation.
Until now, some of Giroir’s most prominent work in the administration revolved around fetal stem cell tissue research, which some scientists think could be needed to find a treatment for the coronavirus. Some conservatives have urged a ban on the use of fetal tissue.
Giroir said during a 2018 meeting 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 get federal funding for fetal tissue research, saying the importance of “promoting the dignity of life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration.” The announcement pleased Trump’s political advisers but dismayed scientists. Giroir’s views on the issue appear to put him at odds with White House policy.
“I think it’s very clear that we don’t have models that completely recapitulate what the fetal tissue does,” Giroir told The Post. “And I just mean this honestly, what I advise the president, or what happens, that’s executive privilege. And I think it was widely reported that this was the president’s decision on the way to go. This was a presidential decision. And he’s the president; he gets to make those decisions.”
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The Washington Post’s Alice Crites contributed to this report.