Egypt's Scorpion King turns venom into money

A laboratory in Egypt, known as the Scorpion Kingdom, produces venom for pharmaceutical research

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Surrounded by thousands of live scorpions in a laboratory deep in Egypt's Western Desert, Ahmed Abu Al Seoud carefully handles one of the curved-tailed arachnids before extracting a drop of its venom.

A mechanical engineer who worked in the oil sector for almost two decades, Mr Al Seoud, 44, decided in 2018 to strike out on a different path – producing scorpion venom for pharmaceutical research.

"I was surfing the internet and saw scorpion venom was one of the most expensive on the market," he said.

"So I thought to myself: Why not take advantage of this desert environment where they roam around?"

Biomedical researchers are studying the pharmaceutical properties of scorpion venom, making the rare and potent neurotoxin a highly sought-after commodity, now produced in several Middle Eastern countries.

"Dozens of scorpion-derived bioactive molecules have been shown to possess promising pharmacological properties," said a review published last May in the journal Biomedicines.

It said labs are studying its potential antimicrobial, immunosuppressive and anti-cancer effects, among others, hoping to one day use or synthesise it for medicines.

Mr Al Seoud is from the Dakhla oasis in Egypt's vast New Valley province and about 800 kilometres south-west of the capital, Cairo.

Sand dunes and towering palms surround his laboratory, which he affectionately calls the Scorpion Kingdom.

"Here, every family has a story about a scorpion sting," Mr Al Seoud said.

To get the animals to secrete venom in the controlled conditions of the lab, the scorpions are given a slight electric shock.

Workers wait 20-30 days between extractions to obtain venom of the highest quality.

"What matters is the level of purity," Mr Al Seoud said. To produce one gram requires the venom of 3,000-3,500 scorpions, he said.

The liquid is refrigerated and transported to Cairo, where it is dried and packaged for sale as a powder.

The laboratory "is certified [by the government] and has the ability to export this unique product", said Nahla Abdel Hameed, 25, a pharmacist who works at the centre.

Egyptian pharmacist Nahla Abdel-Hameed catches a scorpion at the Scorpion Kingdom laboratory and farm in Egypt's Western Desert, near the city of Dakhla in the New Valley, some 700 Southeast the capital, on February 4, 2021. Biomedical researchers are studying the pharmaceutical properties of scorpion venom, making the rare and potent neurotoxin a highly sought-after commodity now produced in several Middle Eastern countries. / AFP / Khaled DESOUKI
Egyptian pharmacist Nahla Abdel Hameed catches a scorpion at the Scorpion Kingdom laboratory. AFP

Ms Abdel Hameed referred to some scientific studies that explored the healing benefits of the venom in curing certain diseases.

Mohey Hafez, a member of the pharmaceutical chamber at the Federation of Egyptian Industries, was more cautious in his assessment of its current uses.

"Scorpion and snake venoms can be used in making antisera," he said.

"There is no ready-made medication that entirely depends on the venom as a direct ingredient, but there has been promising research into its uses".

New Valley province is home to about five species of scorpions, including the sought-after deathstalker (Leiurus quinquestriatus), whose venom sells for up to $7,500 a gram, Mr Al Seoud said.

While he also catches the creatures himself, he employs residents of nearby villages for the risky activity, equipping them with gloves, tweezers, boots, UV lights – and antivenom.

The scorpion hunters earn one to 1.5 Egyptian pounds (about six to 10 US cents) per animal.

Pharmacist Ms Abdel Hameed said the arachnids are caught in residential areas so as not to harm "the ecological balance".

"I classify them according to the area where they were caught, the species and size," she said.

Her colleague, Iman Abdel Malik, said that although the scorpions could go without eating for long periods, they were given "food and protein to increase the toxin excretion". Their diet comprises cockroaches and worms twice a month in the summer, and less during the winter hibernation.

There are plans to breed the scorpions in future rather than catching them, the veterinary surgeon said.

About 20,000 scorpions have been collected so far, according to business partner Alaa Sabaa – the lab has a maximum capacity of 80,000.

He said the first scorpion venom extractions took place in December and January after two years of preparation, and yielded "three grams of venom".

The self-financed project has so far cost about five million pounds, about $320,000, he said, but has also attracted government support.

They also extract bee venom and sell agricultural products, including aromatic plants.

While Egypt has been producing various types of venom for years, Mr Al Seoud said, it was often done illegally or was of poor quality.

He said he hoped his operation would one day be an antidote to the country's "bad reputation" in the sector.

"We are trying to show off the country's capabilities … through a high-quality product that has been studied scientifically as well as produced and exported legally," he said.