In a bid to encourage research in snake poisons, the Maharashtra government has in principle approved setting up of a National Venom Research Centre and approached the central government to aid the Haffkine Institute to initiate research in different species of snakes and their poisons.
Officials from Haffkine Institute said the project has been approved by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and the Union health ministry has been approached to support it. The venom centre will study 52 different species of snakes, their diet and geographical factors that cause difference in their venom. Attempts to create standard norms for anti-snake venom, for both public and private sectors, will be formulated. Haffkine Pharma is the only organisation in the public sector that produces anti-snake venom.
India records 2-3 million snake bite cases and 50,000 deaths every year, the highest in Southeast Asia. The World Health Organisation (WHO), however, claims only 10 per cent cases are reported. Currently, India has about 300 known species of snakes of which at least 52 snakes are considered poisonous.
India, currently, faces a huge demand and supply gap in anti-snake venom production. Of an estimated demand for 4.5 million vials annually, India currently produces 1.5 million vials. The venom centre will focus mostly on terrestrial snakes, and aim to study properties of poison and how to best create the most potent anti-snake venom. “At present, there are no standard norms to manufacture venom or the kind of venom extracted,” said Dr Nishigandha Naik, director at Haffkine Institute, Parel.
Researchers believe anti-snake venom works differently on patients, depending on the kind of snakebite and region from where the snake comes. A venom extracted from one snake in a particular region may differ from the same species found in other part of the country. Several countries produce their own anti-snake venom for this reason.
Another project called Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (Birac), a Department of Biotechnology funded project, will collect snake venom from four states to study venom properties. The Birac will focus on four states in North, East, West and South of India to do biochemical analysis of snake venom.
“Our venom potency is not that great. Perhaps we can extract a mixture of venom from different regions and create a potent anti-snake venom,” Naik added. According to Dr Rahul Gajbhiye, attached with National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health, India produces anti-snake venom against four species — Cobra, Russel’s Viper, Common Krait, and Saw-scaled viper. “But there are very few manufacturers. This is considered a neglected tropical disease,” he said. “Apart from increase in production, we also need skilled doctors to treat snakebites. The vial should be administered within two hours of bite,” said Gajbhiye.