Among the rural poor in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, snake bites kill as many as 138,000 people a year, with about 400,000 others suffering major disabilities such as amputation.
Antivenom is the medicine of choice for treating snake bites but experts say it is often difficult to identify the correct antivenom while it can also be very expensive. This makes treatment unaffordable for the majority of those who need it, particularly women, children and farmers in poor rural communities in low- and middle-income countries.
As part of efforts to reverse these challenges, the African Centre of Excellence in Phytomedicine Research and Development (ACEPRD) at the University of Jos in Nigeria, in collaboration with the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion, on Wednesday, unveiled the world’s first plant-based anti-snake vaccine called COVIP-Plus in Abuja.
Prof. John Aguiyi, Chief inventor and Centre Leader of ACEPRD said the innovation came out of the need to provide affordable and available anti-snake vaccine for people who are at almost constant risk of snake bites, particularly farmers and children in Nigeria.
At the moment, the product is ready but would need approval for clinical trial before it can be commercialized and be made available.
‘‘We have developed the process of manufacturing and we cloned it. With cloning we can manufacture as much kilograms as we will need.
‘‘When the taught first came to me, it was about making available a cost effective anti-venom that will not have any form of adverse effect because what we have in the market today have advert effects to which some people react. I am happy to say that what we have today has proven not to have any of such adverse effect at least in the animals for now.
“By the time we carry out the clinical trials, we should be able to establish whether such adverse effects are found in humans or not. The major thing we have in mind is to bring down the cost of treatment of snakebite.
“It becomes imperative that we develop something for our own use from local source and that is what we have done. To crown it, the vaccine can be carried to any corner of Nigeria because it will stand temperature.”
Each of the world’s 250 species of venomous snakes produces a unique cocktail of toxins that must be counteracted by a specific antivenom, but the antivenoms are plagued by problems, a report by sciencemag.org said.
“And they [antivenoms] are often unsafe, triggering allergic reactions. That is because of the way that antivenoms are produced: Venoms, milked from snakes, are injected at low doses into animals, typically horses, to trigger an immune response. Antibodies from the animals’ blood are harvested, purified, and then used as antivenoms. But people’s immune systems can react to the animal product,” the report added.
The Nigerian scientists from ACEPRD have explained what makes their invention unique.
‘‘The one in circulation has to be refrigerated, order wise it will lose its potency. They are purported to have been produced in Nigeria but we know where they are produced. It is the first in the world because going through the literature, you will not find a plant-derived anti-snake vaccine. That is what made it to be unique. It was not a day’s journey, took almost 24 years with potency and endurance,’’ Prof. Aguiyi said.
The entry into some markets of inappropriate, untested, or even fake antivenom products has undermined confidence in antivenom therapy generally, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
It said many believe that unless strong and decisive action is taken quickly, antivenom supply failure is imminent in Africa and in some countries in Asia.
In December 2015, a programme to evaluate the potential safety and effectiveness of current antivenom products intended for use in sub-Saharan Africa was launched by the WHO.
“The results of this detailed technical and laboratory assessment will provide procurement agencies with informed guidance on which antivenoms best suit their needs,” the WHO said.