India's killer snakes

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In India, snakebites — one of the most overlooked tropical diseases — kill more than anywhere else. But the country’s booming pharmaceutical industry could be an asset in the quest for antivenoms that are both reliable and affordable.

  • €9,922 Budget in Euros
  • 2020 Final release date
  • 3 Round winner
  • 1 Location

India's killer snakes

In India, snakebites — one of the most overlooked tropical diseases — kill more than anywhere else. But the country’s booming pharmaceutical industry could be an asset in the quest for antivenoms that are both reliable and affordable.

The deadliest and most neglected tropical disease: Each year, 2.8 million Indians are victims of snakebites. Between 45,900 and 50,900 of them die. This is the deadliest human-animal conflict. India owes its vulnerability to its large countryside, where poisonous snakes swarm, starting with the cobra, the bongare, Russel's viper and the echis, as the dreaded “Big Four”. In the event of a bite, it is necessary to intervene immediately in the hours after to avoid death or amputation. But Indian culture sanctifies animal life. "Snake catchers" capture the most threatening and release them risking their lives.

Victims in less wealthy countries have long remained in the blind spot of global health. In 2017, the snakebite was finally added by WHO to the selective list of neglected tropical diseases. Among all of them, snakebites cause the most deaths. In May 2019, the WHO set a target of halving the number of victims by 2030. WHO is calling for a 25% increase in the number of anti-venom manufacturers and plans to launch a pilot project to create a global stash.

Indian production booming, but uneven: A student of Pasteur developed a serum at the end of the 19th century. Its principle is based on that of the vaccine, except that instead of administering the immunization to the patient, an animal, usually a horse, acts as an intermediary. It is injected with venom and a digest of its antibodies is inoculated into humans. The problem is, there is no such thing as a universal antidote. There are 500 to 600 species of poisonous snakes. The serum producers first seek to neutralize the venom of species in contact with humans in their region. In India, for cultural and religious reasons, the government sparingly distils capture and extraction permits. The Irula tribal community in Chennai has a virtual monopoly. Anti-venoms are therefore only effective against snakes present in South India.

As a new pharmaceutical giant, India is the most suitable country for the production of serum: India is one of the few to have both the capacity to extract the venom on site and to transform it. Labor is cheaper there than in the West, production standards are less strict. In addition, the price is capped by the state. Enough to rule out global pharmaceutical giants like Sanofi.

Except that Indian anti-venoms are ineffective. To make a profit while respecting the imposed tariff, the labs dilute the doses and side effects are frequent. But more modern processes are emerging: exit the horses, make way for synthetic biology, via DNA sequencing. A team from IIT Delhi is working on a more stable anti-venom, for only 100 rupees, around 1.30 euros, a dose. It remains to ensure its effective and egalitarian distribution in a country as large as a continent.

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