Impromptu Man

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Stay Awake, Comrades

The Chinese Army's Anti-Sleep Pill

Are you losing sleep over America’s competition with China for global dominance? Not to worry. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has a pill that will keep you feeling well, alert and comfortable for 72 hours. So at least while you’re not sleeping you can be productive.

In a little-noticed announcement last fall, the PLA proclaimed that it has developed an anti-sleep pill called Night Eagle. Apparently the putative communists/state capitalists haven’t mastered the Madison Avenue branding arts: “Night Eagle” seems better suited for an erectile dysfunction treatment than an aid for pulling all-nighters. (Though one could imagine a functional connection.)

The little blue pill’s unveiling came as part of the Academy of Military Medical Sciences’ 60th anniversary celebration, but with no word on its ingredients. Nonetheless, the formulation is almost certainly less revolutionary than it might seem within loyal party cadres. In the U.S. a drug called modafinil (marketed as Provigil), has been around for decades, approved by the Food and Drug Administration as effective in the treatment of narcolepsy. Controlled studies have shown that modafinil not only helps patients with sleep disorders but can keep people with normal sleep cycles awake and alert for days. Physicians have long prescribed modafinil “off-label” for insomniacs, shift workers, long-haul truck drivers and travelers who have to cross time zones. However, the risks of long-term use are unknown. One would surely be ill-advised to routinely try to forego the body’s fundamental need for sleep.

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Of course warfighters have good reason to seek help in staying awake. Fatigue is a principle source of error in combat zones, where long periods of boredom are punctuated with seconds of chaos.  Extending the period of useful wakefulness among soldiers has long been a dream of military commanders. The Prussian army experimented with cocaine (but then so did everyone else), and 20th century armies have relied on nicotine, caffeine and, more recently, amphetamines. A number of armed forces use modafinil, including the U.S., British and French. 

Reading between the lines, the PLA’s pride in Night Eagle suggests a desire to demonstrate China’s capacity in pharmaceutical development. However, The People’s Republic’s aggressive industrial policy is frequently accused of violating intellectual property rules by deconstructing and re-engineering products developed elsewhere. It happens that as of last month the generic drug giant Teva has been granted exclusive rights to modafinil, which has just gone off-patent, and the company is trying to capture part of the rapidly growing Chinese market for all medications. Night Eagle might fly into competition with modafinil, and it is almost certainly a remarkably similar formula.

Of course, the great irony in all this is the urgency of the competitive relationship between the two countries, which might soon be battling over a sleep gap. No less a prophet than Karl Marx himself would be surprised at the easy availability of sleep suppressants for the laboring classes. Certainly his great work, Das Kapital, predicted no such thing even as it foretold the inevitable collapse of capitalism.

Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but a good night’s sleep! And a world of wakefulness to win.

Jonathan D. Moreno is a the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor of Ethics at The University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. more...

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