Don't Get Bitten: We're Running Out of Antivenom for Coral Snakes!
If you haven't already, add coral snakes to your mental list of Florida critters you don't want to mess with. Hard to miss thanks to their distinct yellow, black, and red pattern, the snakes -- micrurs fulvius to all you nerds out there -- are usually found hanging around the edges of swamps or underground throughout the entire state.
Wikimedia Commons via Norman.benton
If one happens to get its fangs into you, it's serious business -- much more so next spring, when the current worldwide stash of antivenom (also called antivenin) runs out. And, of course, no one -- from Big Pharm to the government -- seems to have planned ahead.
The coral snake's bite doesn't cause you too much pain; instead, the powerful venom paralyzes your breathing muscles, sealing the deal with asphyxiation, so to speak. Until 2003, an effective antivenin was available to stop the effects of a coral snake encounter.
But the only company that's made the drug since 1967, Wyeth Pharmaceutical, stopped production in 2003, according to this blog post by Jack Facente, director of Agritoxins Venom Labs in Saint Cloud. Everything created in the past year of production expired in 2008.
In 2009, Big Pharm giant Pfizer purchased Wyeth. The new owner asked the FDA to push back the expiration date on the current stock of antivenin, moving the marker down the field a couple of times until the antivenin stash now has an expiration date of April 2014. But that looks to be about it. After the date... no more antivenin.
It looks like Pfizer is actively working on a new product to combat the dangerous coral snake bite. As Facente's post outlines, the company has contracted with labs across Florida like Agritoxins. The marching orders are to collect as many coral snakes as possible and squeeze out the venom (without hurting the snakes, PETA) so the venom can be used in the new cure. Facente:
Coral snakes, unlike the other venomous snakes in Florida, are not easy to come by. Even the best licensed collectors do not run across them often. So the dilemma of getting enough coral snakes to meet pharmaceutical needs had to be addressed. Emails and word of mouth soon spread and the traveling began. Calls started to come in 24/7. We have responded to nearly every call from Tallahassee to Jacksonville and all the way south to Homestead. To date, 60,000 miles have yielded close to 250 coral snakes colonized in these three separate locations.
Right now, across the country, there are fewer than 100 instances in which the venom is needed each year. But still, with the antivenin completely off the shelves for the early part of next year, you might want to watch where you stomp your clogs.
Send your story tips to the author, Kyle Swenson.