Your Monday Briefing
Who will get access to Merck’s new antiviral pill?
Molnupiravir, an antiviral medication made by Merck, could herald a not-too-distant future when a simple pill could keep people infected with the coronavirus from dying or falling severely ill. The drug is easy to distribute and can be taken at home. Trial results showed it halved the risk of hospitalization and death among high-risk people early in their infections.
Unlike the manufacturers of some Covid vaccines, Merck will allow generic manufacturers in India to sell the pills at a far lower price in more than 100 poorer countries. Most nations in sub-Saharan Africa, where vaccination rates are as low as 3 percent, are covered by the deal. The company has also applied for emergency-use authorization from the F.D.A.
Drug-access advocates say the Merck licensing deal is an encouraging start but only a small step toward equity. It is unclear how much of the generic product will be available next year, and the agreements leave out many undervaccinated nations, such as Ukraine, that have been hit hard by Covid.
Competitors: Several other drug makers, including Pfizer, are expected to announce efficacy data from trials of their own Covid medications; the companies said it was too soon to comment on whether they would enter into similar access agreements.
Quotable: “It’s fair to say that this drug could prevent hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and deaths,” said John Amuasi, an infectious-disease expert at the Kumasi Center for Collaborative Research in Tropical Medicine in Ghana. “But the barrier is going to be price.”
Biden’s domestic agenda faces cuts
Lawmakers in the U.S. are debating what to prioritize as they scale back President Biden’s initial proposal to dedicate $3.5 trillion over 10 years to social and economic programs and tax cuts. The bill would curb greenhouse gas emissions, make child care more affordable, expand access to college and lower prescription drug prices, among other priorities.
The smaller bill under discussion could increase the total amount of government spending on all programs by about 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent over the next decade. Biden intends to pay for the proposals with a series of tax increases on businesses and the wealthy, along with reducing government spending on prescription drugs for older Americans.
To get the proposal to a number that can pass the House and Senate along party lines, hundreds of billions of dollars will most likely have to be shaved off the bill’s final price. One key climate proposal, which would replace coal- and gas-fired power plants with wind, solar and nuclear energy, is likely to be dropped because of objections from Joe Manchin, a coal-state senator from West Virginia.
Consequences: Many Democrats fear the U.S. cannot afford to wait to address child poverty, climate change or the gender pay gap. In their view, failing to invest in those issues means the country risks incurring painful costs that will slow economic growth.
Climate change: As the West Virginia senator thwarts the Democratic push to reduce warming, new data show that the state is more exposed to worsening floods than anywhere else in the country.
Fake polls in Kurz’s ascent
The downfall of Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s onetime political wunderkind and, until Oct. 9, its chancellor, has put a spotlight on the cozy, sometimes corrupt, relationship between right-wing populists and parts of the news media.
In May 2017, polling in Austria showed an extraordinary turn for the country’s conservative party, which had long languished behind its rivals. Five months later, with newfound credibility that helped the party convince voters that it had a real chance of winning, it did just that.
Prosecutors now say that many polls before that election were falsified and that Kurz and some of his allies paid off one of Austria’s biggest tabloids to ensure favorable news coverage. Once in power, prosecutors say, he institutionalized the system, using taxpayers’ money to elevate the appearance of his own popularity and punish outlets that criticized him.
Quotable: “What voters saw wasn’t real,” said Helmut Brandstätter, a former newspaper editor turned lawmaker who was bullied by Kurz and pressured to leave his job. “It was a scheme to influence elections and undermine democracy.”
Response: Kurz has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crime, but he remains under investigation in connection with bribery and embezzlement. His downfall has reverberated across Europe, where many of the traditional center-right parties he once inspired are in crisis.
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Around the World
When a monument in the Tunisian capital to those killed in the country’s 2011 uprising was recently damaged, few took notice or even cared.
A decade later, Tunisia remembers its revolution — which ignited the protests that came to be known as the Arab Spring and ushered in the movement’s only remaining democracy — with a kind of reluctance bordering on hostility.
When Balenciaga met ‘The Simpsons’
The storied fashion house of Cristóbal Balenciaga skipped the catwalk this year and screened a special 10-minute episode of “The Simpsons.”
It was a surprise more than a year in the making, Jessica Testa reports for The Times, and the result of a sometimes-grueling collaboration between Demna Gvasalia, Balenciaga’s artistic director, and Matt Groening, the creator of “The Simpsons” — two exacting creative entities known for their attention to detail. So far, the episode has been viewed more than five million times on YouTube.
In the episode, Homer writes to Balenciaga for Marge’s birthday (“Dear Balun, Balloon, Baleen, Balenciaga-ga,” he says as he struggles to pronounce the famous fashion name), explaining that his wife has always wanted to own something by the brand. The emails leads, through various twists and turns, to the brand’s deciding to “rescue” the “style-deprived” denizens of Springfield by inviting them to model Balenciaga’s clothes in Paris.
While the collaboration has a certain surprising novelty, the brands share a similar ethos: an appreciation for self-referentiality, rule-breaking and bridging the highbrow and lowbrow.