An Abu Dhabi company is helping to address a global shortage of antivenom that is used to treat snake bites and scorpion stings.
Thousands of people die every year due to the lack of antivenom which is made by extracting high-quality venom and pure toxins from snakes, scorpions and spiders.
Tucked away in Al Wathba, more than 45 kilometres away from Abu Dhabi, Amsaal extracts venom from thousands reptiles sourced from the Middle East, parts of Africa and Asia in order to export it worldwide for the production of antivenom.
“We are on a mission to save lives,” Mohamed Bashta, chief operating officer of Amsaal, told The National.
“Poisoning by snakebites or scorpion stings can be treated if we have the right antivenom. But the problem is there is an acute shortage of venom.”
He said the company currently has a collection of 2,000 snakes from 25 different species and 45 species of highly venomous scorpions that are sourced mainly from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
“The species are kept in cages with natural settings. We extract venom from them as per the WHO standards,” said Mr Bashta.
“Currently, we are exporting venom to countries in the Middle East and Africa, and also helping in drug research in the UAE.
“The next step is to establish an antivenom production unit in Abu Dhabi and be a premier producer and exporter of antivenom drugs.”
Venomous creatures of the UAE: in pictures
Lack of Middle East data
About 5.4 million snakebites occur each year around the world, of which about 2.7 million result in poisoning, according to the WHO. They cause about 100,000 deaths and three times as many amputations and other permanent disabilities.
In 2017, the WHO designated poisoning by snakebites a neglected tropical disease and launched a global initiative to halve the number of deaths and disabilities they cause by 2030.
Though a majority of snakebite envenoming happens in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, experts say official data is not available in the Middle East to understand the magnitude of the issue in the region.
“That is a problem,” Dr Tarek El-Aziz, scientific director of Amsaal, told The National.
He said at least 10,000 people were estimated to be bitten by poisonous snakes and scorpions every year in the Middle East.
Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen report the largest number of snakebite cases, according to a 2020 study by WHO.
The Middle East region has 19 species of terrestrial venomous snakes.
“In the UAE, the majority of poisoning cases are attributed to scorpion stings as there are many different varieties seen in the desert and mountains,” said Mr El-Aziz.
“There are only three or four kinds of snakes that are extremely venomous.”
The UAE has 13 native species of snakes but only the four viper species are of concern.
The violin spider or brown recluse spider (from the Loxosceles genus) is the most venomous spider in the Middle East and has been reported in the UAE several times.
There have been no recorded deaths in the UAE from snakebites for more than a decade and incidents are rare.
Shortage of antivenom
Mr Bashta says there are only two companies that produce antivenom in the Middle East — the Scientific Studies & Research Centre in Syria, which only produces scorpion antivenom, and the National Antivenom & Vaccine Production Centre (NAVPC), in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
“The shortage of high-quality venom is the main problem impacting the availability of anti-venoms in the market,” he said.
Extracting venom is also a time-consuming process, he said.
“To produce one gram of venom, we need 1,500 to 3,000 scorpions.”
One gram of venom can produce between 20,000 and 50,000 doses of antivenom.
“A gram of scorpion venom can fetch anything between $7,000 and $10,000,” he said.
One of the venom extraction methods used is to expose the scorpions to a tiny electric current that stimulates them to release venom.
“Extracting venom from snakes is much easier. A gram can be extracted from 20 snakes and hence snake venom is cheaper,” Mr Bashta said.
“The price depends on how rare and dangerous the species are.”
The extracted venom is kept in temperature-controlled labs to avoid damage.
“We are developing new technologies to extract venom and also collecting more samples to support drug research,” Mr Bashta said.
“It is a dangerous business. But it is an important life-saver too. Our aim is to make our environments safer and make sure that people all over the world have access to affordable antivenom.”