Your Thursday Briefing – The New York Times

The American pharmaceutical giant Merck granted a royalty-free license for its promising Covid-19 antiviral pill to a U.N.-backed nonprofit organization. The agreement restricts sales to developing countries and excludes most middle-income countries — including China and Russia, as well as many Latin American nations.

The deal with the Medicines Patent Pool would allow the drug, called molnupiravir, to be manufactured and sold cheaply in 105 countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, where vaccines for Covid-19 are in short supply. Affluent nations have rushed to negotiate deals to buy the drug, tying up supply and raising concerns that poor countries could be shut out.

The deal has been welcomed by advocates for treatment access, who called it an unusual step for a major Western pharmaceutical company. Merck has already licensed eight large Indian drug makers to produce generic versions of molnupiravir, pending authorization.

Results: The drug halved the rate of hospitalizations and deaths in high-risk Covid patients who took it soon after infection in a large clinical trial, according to Merck.

Details: Generic drug makers in developing countries are expected to market the drug for as little as $20 per treatment (a five-day course), compared with the $712 per course that the U.S. government agreed to pay for its initial purchase.

Here are the latest updates and maps of the pandemic.

In other developments:

Some middle and high schools in the north of Afghanistan were allowed last month to reopen their doors to girls, even as most in the rest of the country have been forced to stay home.

Under pressure from foreign governments and international aid groups, Taliban officials insist that things will be different for girls and women from the last time the militants were in power. But many teachers and parents still have their doubts, especially as women remain excluded from government and most public-facing jobs.

Gender segregation in school has exacerbated a severe teacher shortage and has threatened to eliminate opportunities in higher education for girls. Many parents have kept their daughters home, afraid to send them to school with armed Talibs lining the streets. Others no longer see the value of educating daughters with so few job opportunities for women.

First person: “This generation is fragile,” one mother, who lost her job as a literature professor when the Taliban seized power, said of her daughter’s cohort. “If she can’t go to university, she’ll be completely destroyed.”

Historical context: During the first Taliban regime, in the 1990s, women and girls were barred from going to school. Those restrictions were lifted when the Taliban were toppled in 2001, and educational opportunities for women gradually blossomed. By 2018, four out of 10 students enrolled in schools were girls, according to UNESCO.

China’s tests of a hypersonic missile was “very close” to a “Sputnik moment” for the U.S., said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His remarks confirmed how the weapon took American officials by surprise. The test was a “very significant technological event,” he added.

Two tests took place this summer in a fashion that would be highly visible to satellites, but U.S. officials remained mostly silent about them. Hypersonic missiles can quickly maneuver and alter course, making them virtually impossible for existing U.S. defenses to intercept.

The tests, which could revive fears of a Cold War-like arms race, come as Beijing is spending heavily to modernize its military and may be seeking to expand its nuclear arsenal. The U.S. has an active hypersonic program of its own, as does Russia and North Korea, among others. But the U.S. program has experienced setbacks, including when a booster rocket carrying a hypersonic weapon failed last week.

Foreign policy news: Iran’s chief negotiator said the country would return to nuclear talks in November.

Take a tour of a Russian czar’s palace, resurrected.

For more than a decade, architects and researchers have worked to restore the last home of Nicholas II, Russia’s last czar, to its early-20th-century glory, using a few fuzzy-colored pictures, thousands of black-and-white photos, some watercolors, several drapery swatches and memoirs of palace life.

Gimme gimme gimme … another Abba album!

After 40 years, the Swedish pop group is back with “Voyage,” a new 10-track album, set to come out on Nov. 5. “We took a break in the spring of 1982 and now we’ve decided it’s time to end it,” the band said in a statement.

The popularity of Abba’s music hasn’t waned: “Abba Gold,” a compilation that came out in 1992, is on the British charts more than 1,000 weeks after its release. The musical “Mamma Mia!” — which incorporates Abba’s hits into its story — prompted a number of imitators and two film adaptations. And fans are still obsessed.

This time around, none of the four band members, who are all in their 70s, will perform in person, Elisabeth Vincentelli writes in The Times. Starting in a custom-built London venue next year, they will perform as avatars — Abbatars — designed to replicate their 1979 look. Here’s one of the new songs, “Just a Notion.”

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