Time for a clever pill

Shake off that hangover drowsiness with the help of an experimental drug

Last weekend was exhausting. I stayed out late on Friday and Saturday nights. I drank too much. On Sunday, I got up early and drove a long way to see a football match. My team lost. By Monday, what I really wanted was some CX717.

I can't have it right now, as CX717 is an experimental drug. Its developer - Cortex Pharmaceuticals of California - is keeping a tight hold on it. Clinical trials are being run to test its safety - thousands of them at any one time - yet there is a buzz about CX717 already. It'll be years before it hits the market, but people, including me, want it already.

We want CX717 because it appears to wipe out that slow-thinking drowsiness that a lack of sleep brings on. It's early days, but initial experiments show that sleep-deprived monkeys given CX717 perform as well on cognitive tests as those who had slept soundly. The results are exciting enough to have landed Cortex research papers in top-ranked scientific journals. Humans seem to benefit as well, and none of the experiments has revealed any serious side-effects.

Results like this are enough to have investors throwing millions at Cortex. But there is another side to the drug that could turn it into an even bigger earner. CX717 doesn't just make you think better when you're tired. It makes you think better when you're not. In other words, it makes you cleverer.

Just how much cleverer is something that will become clear as the drug is tested. It may be little more than the sharper thinking and better recall we get from coffee. It may be noticeably more than that. In a sense it doesn't matter, because CX717 is only one of several drugs being developed to do the same thing. It's likely that at least one will clear safety testing and hit the market in the next five years or so.

So why aren't we talking about all this? There are big questions to be answered. Will employees be pressured into taking drugs in order to work longer hours? What if students want to take them but only the rich ones can afford to? Should less affluent students be given them, for example? Or should we just relax: if a drug can make us more alert without harming us, isn't that a good thing?

One reason why we're not talking about this is that CX717 is not marketed as a clever pill; it's being tested as a treatment for brain disorders, including Alzheimer's. Yet, if it gets approval, something interesting is likely to happen. Doctors, particularly in the US, could prescribe the drug for people who simply want a pick-me-up. Internet pharmacies could make it available to anyone. The same has happened with Viagra; originally licensed as a treatment for erectile dysfunction, it is now used by couples who just want more of a good thing.

But drugs such as CX717 shouldn't enter the market under the radar. As the think-tank Demos has pointed out, technologies should be discussed at an early stage of development, not moments before they are deployed. Cortex, and other drugs companies, need to come clean about their products and sponsor such a debate. CX717 sounds a good product. I'd just like to hear all sides of the story before it hits the pharmacy shelves.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war

Show Hide image

Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.