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One Man’s Rolodex Helps Operation Warp Speed Live Up to Its Name

A deep contact list, mutual trust and an urgent need smoothed the way for a pharmaceutical giant and a small biotech lab to join forces to hatch a new drug

OncoImmune Inc. co-founders Pan Zheng and Yang Liu at the company’s laboratory in Rockville, Md.

OncoImmune Inc. co-founders Pan Zheng and Yang Liu at the company’s laboratory in Rockville, Md.

Photographer: Rosem Morton/Bloomberg

On a Sunday evening in late September, Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific adviser for Operation Warp Speed, was driving from his home in Philadelphia back to Washington, for another week of round-the-clock work. It was 8 p.m. when he put in a call to Roger Perlmutter, head of research for pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co.

“I’m not sure this is going to interest you,” said Slaoui, but he persisted: “This is important.”