DOUBLE THE TROUBLE.
Pfizer has increased the list price of its COVID-19 antiviral drug, Paxlovid, to nearly $1,400 per course, more than double the $530 paid by the US government during the pandemic’s emergency phase. Pfizer’s CEO had previously mentioned a price hike when transitioning from government distribution to the commercial market at the end of the year, but the specific increase was disclosed in a letter to healthcare providers. The company justified the price increase by citing Paxlovid’s value in reducing COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.
However, a cost-effectiveness analysis by The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review estimated the drug’s value at $563 to $906 per treatment course. The list price does not necessarily reflect what patients or insurers will pay, as it will be negotiated with pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs). The higher list price allows Pfizer to offer larger discounts and rebates to PBMs and insurers, but these discounts may not always benefit patients, potentially contributing to rising healthcare costs in the US.
Government programs will provide free access to Paxlovid for Medicare, Medicaid, and uninsured individuals through 2024, with assistance programs continuing afterward. Despite this, doctors and advocates express concerns that higher list prices may deter usage, particularly in settings where the drug is most needed and underused. (Ars Technica)
NEXTGEN COVID-19 SPENDING.
Six months after its $5 billion announcement for Project NextGen, the U.S. government has unveiled plans for its spending. Aimed at developing treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will allocate $1.2 billion to three vaccine developers, building upon the $1 billion already granted for yearlong clinical trials involving 10,000 participants. An additional half-billion is dedicated to the development of monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) that counteract SARS-CoV-2 infection. Though not as comprehensive as the $18 billion Operation Warp Speed in 2020, experts believe NextGen could advance existing treatments and unveil breakthroughs for other infectious diseases.
However, some argue it’s insufficient preparation for future pandemics. Current vaccines offer short-lived protection, but new contenders, including CastleVax, Codagenix, and Gritstone bio, aim to improve efficacy and range of protection. These companies will receive $300-400 million upon achieving set milestones. In contrast to present mRNA vaccines, new approaches use live viruses or expanded mRNA coding to boost immunity. Furthermore, mAb therapies, which directly combat infections, are also under investigation, with companies like Regeneron, ModeX Theraputics, and Vir Biotechnology at the helm. Trials for these solutions are expected to commence soon. The remaining NextGen funds will foster the creation of cutting-edge tech, such as antiviral drugs and vaccine-delivery patches. However, some experts believe there’s insufficient support for all-encompassing vaccines and warn against complacency in pandemic preparations. (Science)
NEW CHIP TAILOR MADE FOR AI.
Researchers at IBM in San Jose, California, have unveiled the NorthPole processor chip, a brain-inspired computer chip that has the potential to enhance artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities by operating faster and using significantly less power. The innovative design addresses the Von Neumann bottleneck, which is a limitation in computer systems arising from the need to shuttle data between separate memory and processing units. This phenomenon hampers computer speeds, especially in AI applications, and is also energy inefficient. NorthPole’s architecture contains 256 cores, each with its own memory, reducing the need for constant external memory access. The cores are interconnected in a manner inspired by the human brain’s white-matter connections. Although highly efficient in image recognition tests and consuming less energy than leading AI chips, NorthPole’s memory capacity is currently insufficient for larger language models. Nevertheless, its design might benefit applications like self-driving cars. Other innovative chip designs are also being explored using novel materials and structures. (Nature)
INDIGENOUS RIGHTS VS. ACADEMIC FREEDOM.
In 2020, Rob Beck, editor-elect of “Southeastern Archaeology”, chose a cover photo featuring ceramic vessels excavated from the Crystal River Archaeological State Park, Florida. However, the photo depicted vessels from a funeral mound, leading to objections from Indigenous members of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference (SEAC) who found it offensive. Consequently, Beck initiated a policy to publish only line drawings of funerary objects, with photos restricted to an online database. Furthermore, researchers would need to consult tribes first. This decision faced opposition from archaeologists, like Vin Steponaitis, who believed it would stifle research. A vote on the policy is scheduled for early November. Advocates of the policy emphasize the sacredness of funerary objects to Indigenous communities. Critics argue that the policy restricts academic freedom and could hinder preservation efforts. A central issue is the balance between respecting Indigenous rights and maintaining academic freedom in archaeological research. (Science)
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AI GOOD/AI BAD.
Starting 1 November, Microsoft will roll out its ChatGPT-style AI assistant, Microsoft 365 Copilot, to all users. Integrated into Microsoft’s office apps, Copilot can summarize Teams meetings, draft emails, create documents, spreadsheet graphs, and PowerPoint presentations swiftly. Microsoft aims to reduce mundane tasks with this tool, but there are concerns about job displacement and over-reliance on AI. Further, regulations in Europe and China dictate that AI-driven content should be clearly labeled, but Microsoft suggests that the onus is on the user. An exclusive demo showcased Copilot’s efficiency in summarizing emails, drafting responses, and generating PowerPoint presentations. It can also summarize Microsoft Teams meetings and present discussion themes. The tool is priced at $30 per month, is internet-dependent, and critics worry about the potential impact on administrative roles and an overdependence that could be problematic in the event of system failures or hacks. (BBC)
HURRICANES ARE GETTING STRONGER.
A recent study has found that due to warmer oceans, Atlantic hurricanes are over twice as likely now to rapidly intensify compared to the past. Examples include Hurricane Lee, which escalated to a Category 5 hurricane in 24 hours, and Hurricane Maria in 2017, which went from a Category 1 to an intense Category 5 storm in 15 hours. The research analyzed 830 Atlantic tropical cyclones since 1971 and revealed that in the past two decades, storms escalated from a Category 1 to a major hurricane within 24 hours 8.1% of the time, compared to just 3.2% from 1971 to 1990. This rapid intensification poses challenges for predictions, preparations, and decisions on evacuations. The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, also highlighted that 90% of excess warming caused by humans has been absorbed by the oceans. Continued carbon emissions could further exacerbate this trend, the study warns. (Associated Press)
THE MISUNDERSTOOD RAT.
Historically, humans have prosecuted animals for alleged crimes against us. But a recent reexamination of the evidence suggests rats may have been wrongly blamed for spreading the Black Death in Europe. In fact, human parasites like fleas and lice were likely the main vectors. Beyond plague, our assumption that urban rats pose a high disease risk is often unfounded. Rats tend to have localized ranges rather than roam cities. Despite myths of aggression, rats are intelligent, playful animals capable of empathy and forming social bonds. More humane approaches like improved sanitation and housing can resolve rat issues better than cruel traps and poisons which often backfire. Rather than waging war, we might seek understanding, as we have with other wildlife. If we communicate in ways rats comprehend, coexistence may be possible. The text challenges preconceptions and advocates rethinking our relationship with this maligned creature. (Hakai Magazine)
NYC BUILDING BECOMES BIRD FRIENDLY.
The condominium building Circa Central Park in New York City has become a fatal obstacle for migratory birds. Each year, during the spring and fall migration seasons, numerous birds fatally crash into the building’s glass surfaces, unable to discern them from open air. The phenomenon has ignited outrage from bird conservationists and drawn criticism on social media. Although not unique in its impact on birds, the building ranks among the top three for bird window strikes monitored by NYC Audubon. In response, residents have begun adding bird-deterring window film to the glass, a measure to make it more perceptible to birds. The increase in glass buildings in urban areas has intensified bird fatalities, with researchers estimating hundreds of millions die annually in window collisions in the U.S. Cities, including New York, have begun passing laws mandating bird-friendly measures for new constructions. Manufacturers are noting a rise in demand for bird-friendly products, signaling a growing awareness and demand for architectural solutions. (New York Times)
NYC AIMS TO PROTECT ITS RESIDENTS FROM AI BIAS.
New York City has introduced an AI Action Plan, aiming to shield its residents from potential harm, such as bias or discrimination from AI technologies. The plan, described as a pioneering initiative by Mayor Eric Adams, consists of about 40 policy measures which include creating standards for AI bought by city agencies and establishing mechanisms to evaluate AI risks utilized by city departments. City council member Jennifer Gutiérrez has proposed establishing an Office of Algorithmic Data Integrity to supervise AI application in the city. This office would allow citizens to lodge complaints regarding automated decision systems used by public bodies and would also review AI technologies for bias and discrimination prior to their deployment. While several US senators have previously proposed a national AI regulatory agency, Gutiérrez emphasizes New York’s need to lead in AI governance due to its innovative ecosystem. The city has a history of proactive AI regulation; however, there have been inconsistencies in its application and oversight. (Wired)
IMAGE CREDIT: Intellec7.
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