COVID-19 pill developers aim to top Merck, Pfizer efforts

covid pills

As Merck and Pfizer prepare to report clinical trial results for experimental COVID-19 antiviral pills, rivals are lining up with what they hope will prove to be more potent and convenient oral treatments of their own.

Enanta Pharmaceuticals, Pardes Biosciences, Japan’s Shionogi and Novartis said they have designed antivirals that specifically target the coronavirus while aiming to avoid potential shortcomings such as the need for multiple pills per day or known safety issues.

Infectious disease experts stressed that preventing COVID-19 through wide use of vaccines remains the best way to control the pandemic. But they said the disease is here to stay and more convenient treatments are needed.

“We need to have oral alternatives for suppression of this virus. We have people who aren’t vaccinated getting sick, people whose vaccine protection is waning, and people who can’t get vaccinated,” said Dr. Robert Schooley, an infectious diseases professor at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

Pfizer and Merck, as well as partners Atea Pharmaceuticals and Roche AG have all said they could seek emergency approval for their COVID-19 antiviral pills this year.

Rivals are at least a year behind. Pardes began an early-stage trial last month, Shionogi plans to start large-scale clinical trials by year-end, Enanta aims to start human trials early next year and Novartis is still testing its pill in animals.

Enanta Chief Executive Jay Luly said re-purposing drugs originally developed for other viral infections is not an unreasonable approach. But it is not known how potent they will be against COVID-19 or how well they can target lung tissue, where the virus takes hold.

The risk is “if it’s not a great effort …you’ll end up losing time,” Luly said.

Antivirals are complex to develop because they must target the virus after it is already replicating inside human cells without damaging healthy cells. They also need to be given early to be most effective.

Currently, intravenous and injected antibodies are the only approved treatments for non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

An effective, convenient COVID-19 treatment could reach annual sales of over $10 billion, according to a recent Jefferies & Co estimate. Merck has a contract with the U.S. government that implies a price of $700 for a course of treatment with its antiviral molnupiravir.


Several classes of antiviral drugs are being explored. Polymerase inhibitors such as Atea’s drug – first developed for hepatitis C – aim to disrupt the ability of the coronavirus to make copies of itself. There are also protease inhibitors, like Pfizer’s pill, which are designed to block an enzyme the virus needs in order to multiply earlier in its lifecycle.

We are trying to halt the processes “that allow the virus to set up a replication factory,” said Uri Lopatin, CEO at Pardes, which is also developing a COVID-19 protease inhibitor.

Merck’s molnupiravir, developed with Ridgeback Therapeutics, was at one point envisioned as a flu drug and works by introducing errors into the genetic code of the virus.

“The broad spectrum activity of molnupiravir against RNA viruses, including other respiratory viruses, suggests that it should be a durable, useful molecule,” said Jay Grobler, who oversees infectious disease and vaccines at Merck.

Merck said data shows the drug is not capable of inducing genetic changes in human cells, but men in its trials have to abstain from heterosexual intercourse or agree to use contraception.

Until reproductive toxicology study results are available, “we don’t know if there’s any potential effect of drug on sperm,” said Merck research executive Nicholas Kartsonis.

Both molnupiravir and Pfizer’s pill are taken every 12 hours for five days. Pfizer’s drug must be combined with older antiviral ritonavir, which boosts the activity of protease inhibitors but can cause gastrointestinal side effects and interfere with other medications.

“It is a nuisance to add a drug you don’t need to have a drug you want to take be effective,” Schooley said.

Pfizer said a low dose of ritonavir will help its protease inhibitor remain in the body longer and at higher concentrations.

Enanta, which gets most of its revenue from a hepatitis C deal with AbbVie Inc, scanned its library of antiviral compounds early in 2020. It instead chose to design a new protease inhibitor that targets an enzyme vital to the ability of the coronavirus, and its variants, to replicate.

The drug will be tested at once daily dosing with no ritonavir boosting, Luly said.

Lopatin said Pardes is assessing once- and twice-a-day dosing and whether its drug needs to be combined with ritonavir. “We do not anticipate that we will need to use a booster,” he said.

Pardes received funding from Gilead Sciences, which gave up on an inhaled version of its remdesivir, an intravenous polymerase inhibitor approved for hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

Gilead is still working an oral remdesivir, which was also first developed for hepatitis C and is currently the only antiviral approved for treating COVID-19.

Mastercard rolls out new program


Mastercard unveiled on Tuesday a buy now, pay later (BNPL) program that will allow consumers to pay for online and in-store purchases through equal and interest-free installments.

The Mastercard Installments program will be available in markets across the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, the company said.

Mastercard says its Installments program builds on Mastercard’s investments in open banking that help deliver a simple and convenient experience for consumers, merchants and lenders.

As an elective option for lenders, with consumer consent, account-level transaction histories can be considered as part of the underwriting process, enabling credit to be safely extended to a greater number of shoppers. Open banking technology also facilitates the consumer’s preferred method of repayment, which may be their checking or savings account, a Mastercard debit card, or another payment product.

Key benefits of Mastercard Installments include:

  • Consumers: The Mastercard Installments program enables consumers to choose how and when they pay for items from a brand they can trust. Consumers enjoy a seamless experience before and after checkout through options to access BNPL offers, or secure an offer at the time of checkout, from trusted lenders for use at a variety of merchants interest-free. As consumer protection is paramount at Mastercard, Mastercard Installments provides ubiquitous acceptance backed by zero liability fraud protection, not yet available through most current BNPL offerings.
  • Merchants & Acquiring Banks: The Mastercard Installments program helps merchants scale BNPL offerings to consumers to turn convenience into a competitive advantage. BNPL solutions have been shown to increase average sales by 45 percent and reduce cart abandonment by 35 percent post-implementation*. Mastercard Installments provides seamless merchant integration with a streamlined process for millions of merchants who already accept Mastercard. Meanwhile, acquiring banks can offer installments capabilities to their entire merchant base with minimal, simple integration.
  • Lenders: Through the Mastercard Installments Program, lenders can offer a flexible, seamless BNPL experience to both existing and new customers, expanding their lending opportunities in one of the fastest growing consumer segments. Mastercard Installments provides an expedited time to market and global expansion opportunities with a responsible lending approach.
  • Wallets and BNPL players: Digital wallets and BNPL players can easily integrate Mastercard Installments’ APIs and deploy the solution to consumers and already integrated merchants, extending reach beyond their existing footprint. Mastercard Installments is embedded in the core Mastercard network, which means there is no longer a need for wallets and BNPL players to build direct settlement arrangements with merchants or acquirers. BNPL providers can also supplement their existing networks with additional merchant acceptance.

Fueled by changing consumer spending habits during the pandemic, BNPL adoption continues to accelerate globally. In addition to consumer demand, the momentum is being driven by issuer and merchant desire to deliver new, complementary ways for consumers to shop both in-store and online.

The company also said it will work on the BNPL program with banks and fintech firms, including Barclays’s U.S. unit, Fifth Third Bancorp, Marqeta, and SoFi Technologies, in the United States, and Qantas Loyalty and Latitude in Australia.

Why have Elon Musk and Tesla suddenly turned against bitcoin?

Elon Musk, Richest person

Elon Musk has performed a sudden U-turn on bitcoin over concerns about its energy usage, and says his electric car firm Tesla will no longer accept the cryptocurrency as payment – but will his decision have an impact, and could Tesla turn to an alternative currency?

Tesla bet big on bitcoin earlier this year with a $1.5 billion investment, and it paid off: Bloomberg estimates that the company made $1 billion on its purchase in the first quarter of 2021.

At the time, Musk was criticised for investing in the cryptocurrency, with many people pointing out that the environmental damage caused by its large electricity usage was at odds with Tesla’s apparent green credentials.

Now, Musk seems to have reached the same conclusion, tweeting on 12 May that Tesla would suspend bitcoin sales because of concerns about “rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for bitcoin mining and transactions, especially coal, which has the worst emissions of any fuel”.

“Cryptocurrency is a good idea on many levels and we believe it has a promising future, but this cannot come at great cost to the environment,” he added.

Bitcoins are created, or mined, using a concept called proof of work, which involves solving functionally useless and computationally difficult puzzles that consume a large amount of electricity. The currency’s annual electricity consumption is estimated to be 148 terawatt-hours and rising, or around the same amount as Poland’s. To make matters worse, some of this energy is coming from coal power stations.

Musk says that Tesla will neither accept nor sell-off any bitcoins for the moment, but does plan to use its reserves once mining “transitions to more sustainable energy”.

Carol Alexander at the University of Sussex, UK, says that merely holding bitcoins, rather than transacting with them, has no carbon footprint, so Musk’s move will have an effect in cutting Tesla’s future emissions.

Bitcoin isn’t the only cryptocurrency that Musk’s businesses are involved with. SpaceX, one of his other companies, is reportedly already accepting Dogecoin for satellite launches, although his reference to the currency as a “hustle” during his 8 May appearance on Saturday Night Live sent the price down by 35 per cent. On 11 May, Musk tweeted a poll asking his followers whether Tesla should accept Dogecoin as payment. Tesla didn’t respond to New Scientist’s request for comment.

Dogecoin uses less energy per transaction than bitcoin because the calculations used to mine coins are less complex, with bitcoin requiring 707 kilowatt hours for each payment and Dogecoin requiring just 0.12, so a switch could reduce Tesla’s environmental impact.

Alternatively, there are other cryptocurrencies that take different approaches to securing transactions, such as basing control of their blockchains on the number of coins or the amount of hard disc space someone owns, although Musk has made no public statement on these.

Wherever Musk’s thoughts on cryptocurrencies go next, it is clear that the billionaire’s tweets can have a substantial impact on the sector. His anti-bitcoin stance caused an immediate 15 per cent drop, but prices are rising again. Of course, given the energy use per transaction, this market frenzy has its own environmental impact.

PayPal has two decades of…


PayPal has two decades of experience in online payments and manages 403 million user accounts. So, it caused ripples when it announced on 23 August it would allow UK customers to buy and sell four cryptocurrencies: bitcoin prices rose to a three-month high. But will this – and last October’s roll-out in the US – push cryptocurrencies into the mainstream, or is it just another blip in the short but volatile history of decentralised money?

Customers in the US who have bought cryptocurrencies through Paypal log in twice as often as those who haven’t, says Jose Fernandez da Ponte at PayPal. “We expect digital currencies to play an important role in consumer payments over the longer term,” he says.

Public interest in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is certainly growing, but only a minority have bought in. A YouGov survey revealed that by August 2019, just 3 per cent of people in the UK owned any cryptocurrencies. By July 2021 that had risen to 8 per cent.

Giving millions of existing PayPal customers the ability to buy at the click of a button has enormous potential for increasing those numbers, but access to the currency isn’t the only limiting factor. People need a way to spend it.

A handful of large companies, such as Microsoft, have begun accepting bitcoin as payment, and others such as electric car company Tesla have done so at times too. And while several other retailers, including grocery stores, coffee shops and hardware stores, have systems to accept cryptocurrency in some countries, using only this form of payment day-to-day would be no easy task.

PayPal users in the UK won’t be able to use cryptocurrency to buy goods or services – they can only buy, hold and sell the currency. But in the US, the company offers the ability to use balances for payments anywhere that accepts PayPal. This effectively allows hundreds of thousands of retailers to accept cryptocurrencies without having to make any changes or accept any risk, and receive US dollars from PayPal as normal.

Read more: Why have Elon Musk and Tesla suddenly turned against bitcoin?

This is vital, as the risk for businesses is high, says Carol Alexander at the University of Sussex, UK. Cryptocurrencies are “dominated by huge speculation and rampant manipulation”, she says.

Organised groups are able to cause swings in cryptocurrency values with coordinated buying or selling and, unlike the traditional financial services sector, there is little regulation to stop it. So, if you take bitcoin as payment directly, it may plummet in value before you convert it.

“I can’t see this as the moment crypto goes mainstream. The widespread market abuse needs addressing first,” says Alexander.

Cryptocurrencies are decentralised systems with no official oversight, so regulation is difficult. Registered companies that deal in them are finding themselves under increasing scrutiny. In June, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority ruled that Binance Markets Limited, one of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchanges, had to cease regulated trading in the UK.

There are still hurdles to overcome before cryptocurrency can truly break into the mainstream, including its exorbitant energy use, volatility and complexity.

But some are still confident that the technology offers enough benefits, such as protection from inflation, a degree of anonymity and low fees for large payments, that widespread adoption is inevitable.

Nigel Green at financial services firm deVere Group is confident that cryptocurrencies will replace traditional money and, although that moment is still some way off, he says PayPal’s announcement is “yet another example that exposes cryptocurrency deniers as being on the wrong side of history”.

“This is a major step forward towards the mass adoption of digital currencies,” he says. “More and more payment companies will naturally follow their lead.”

WhatsApp to support iPad and at least another iPhone in new update


It’s been a while since the news regarding multi-device support on WhatsApp broke out, but now, a new report shows evidence that this feature is going to look more like what Telegram already does.

According to WABetainfo, while WhatsApp already offers the ability to link its account with WhatsApp Web, Desktop, and Portal to some beta testers, it’s still developing an app for the iPad and the ability to link another phone with the same account.

WABetainfo says it’s not clear whether this feature will only be available for tablets, but for the time being, there is no evidence that the company will exclude mobile phones.

One of the things that people complain about the most about WhatsApp over Telegram is the lack of multi-device support, as you can log in to as many devices as you’d like. WhatsApp, on the other hand, is still restricted to one main device with an active internet connection.

The company is also working on another important feature, which is the ability to transfer chat history between iOS and Android devices and vice-versa.

There’s no official news regarding when WhatsApp will release multi-device support or multi-device 2.0, but the company is developing them and making progress.

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