Snakebite Anti-Venom Supplies Are Dwindling

The global supply of the world’s most effective snakebite anti-venom medication will run out by 2016, scientists at Doctors Without Borders warn. Doctors, pharmacists, and researchers from around the world are meeting at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland on September 8th, 2015 to address the impending anti-venom crisis.

However, with the expensive and time-consuming production of these anti-venoms, the poorness of their biggest market, and the lack of public interest, people are pessimistic about the prospects of rebooting production of effective snakebite anti-venom.

Who’s Bite Is It Anyway?

The trouble with snakebite anti-venoms is that they are brutally expensive and difficult to make, and yet they are primarily used on the poorest people on earth.

Here are the numbers: 5 million people get bitten by snakes each year, and of these, about a half-million sustain permanent injury or amputation, and 100,000 die.

Unfortunately, the majority of these bites, injuries, and deaths take place in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa has the planet’s greatest and most diverse concentration of venomous snakes, including black mambas, green mambas, and puff adders. These bites happen in areas with extremely limited access to money and healthcare, resulting in too many deaths and amputations. The lucky ones who get administered an effective snakebite anti-venom, which costs between $250 and $500, usually have it paid for by an international non-profit.

If This Stuff Is So Necessary, Why Are We Running Out of It?

The specific snakebite anti-venom in question is called Fav-Afrique, the world’s most effective snake venom antidote that reverses the effects of Africa’s ten most venomous snakes, produced by the pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur. The trouble is that Sanofi stopped making Fav-Afrique a few years ago because it was unprofitable; they shifted their production to anti-rabies medication, which has a wider and not-quite-as-impoverished market. Sanofi offered its technology and formula to other companies, but none have expressed interest in resuming production.

The last batch of Fav-Afrique is set to expire in June 2016. If contracts were negotiated and production resumed as quickly as possible, there would still not be another batch of Fav-Afrique for two years.

Fav-Afrique is not the only snakebite anti-venom on the market, but it is far and away the most effective—and most expensive. Sanofi suspended production because it was losing market share to cheaper, less-effective drugs that are not proven to neutralize nearly as many venoms as Fav-Afrique. But with a market as poor as rural Sub-Saharan Africans, saving hundreds of dollars can actually save more lives than spending hundreds of dollars to save one life.

Snakebite Anti-Venom Is Incredibly Hard To Make

It would be easy to condemn Sanofi as a greedy pharmaceutical company that arbitrarily cut off production of a lifesaving drug to please its shareholders. That’s probably partially true, but people should also respect the extreme difficulty of making these antidotes.

To make anti-venom, you need antibodies. To collect anti-bodies, you need venom. And to get venom, you need snakes.

The makers of snakebite anti-venoms work with the world’s most dangerous snakes every day. Scientists literally keep mambas, adders, vipers, and cobras in a lab, take them out of their tanks each day, and force them to bite and release their deadly venom into plastic jars. The scientists take precautions to protect themselves from getting bitten, including wearing full face covers around spitting cobras, who spit their venom more than six feet and aim for your eyes.

Once the venom is collected, the scientists inject trace amounts of it into sheep and horses. These animals produce antibodies to fight off the venom, antibodies which are then collected from their bodies and used in the snakebite anti-venom.

And since most people bitten by snakes do not know which type of snake did the biting, it is important that each anti-venom contain antidotes for a wide variety of snakebites. Therefore, each dose of Fav-Afrique is the result of extracting venom from ten of the world’s deadliest snakes, injecting it into animals ten times, and collecting those animals’ antibodies ten times. Not exactly a project for your fourth-grade science fair.

The World Must Act

This issue flew under the radar until now, when it is already too late. As said before, even in a best-case scenario, production would not resume for two years, leaving thousands without access to Fav-Afrique for over a year and causing many needless deaths and mutilations.

We have the science to save thousands of lives for decades to come. All we need is the action.

What do you think is the best resolution to solving the snakebite anti-venom global shortage? Share your thoughts!

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Kerry Martin is a semi-native of Denver. He went to school in Vermont for its great beaches. Now transplanted to Brooklyn, he works as a volunteer coordinator/community organizer for ArchCare TimeBank when he isn't writing Ecology, Technology, and Offbeat articles for Clapway.