Is a Universal Snakebite Antidote Coming Soon?

snakebite antidote

Story at-a-glance -

  • Few snake venom antidotes exist, particularly to counteract multiple snake venom effects
  • Researchers have revealed that a compound called varespladib appears to be effective against 28 common snake venoms, making it a potential “universal antidote”
  • In animal studies, all the rodents that received varespladib were alive 24 hours after receiving an otherwise lethal dose of venom

By Dr. Becker

In the U.S., venomous snakes include rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins and coral snakes. Each year, up to 8,000 Americans are bitten by venomous snakes, but only about five people die, in large part because most of those bitten are able to seek prompt medical care.

Venomous snakebites can be treated with specific anti-venoms, which typically require refrigeration and administration by a doctor. The anti-venoms are snake-specific. That is, each is designed to counteract the unique effects of an individual species' venom.

There are potentially 20 million distinct venom toxins (from all venomous species, not just snakes), each with its own targets and effects, that have yet to be explored. Snake venom, for instance, may paralyze its victim, damage its tissues or cause excessive blood clotting or bleeding.

If you are to survive the effects, you need anti-venom designed to counteract the venom's specific effects. In many areas of the world, access to such anti-venoms — or medical care of any kind — is difficult to come by, especially fast enough to stop poisonous venom.

As a result, it's estimated that worldwide at least 20,000, and possibly as many as 94,000, deaths occur due to snakebites each year, particularly in South Asia, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Researchers Close to Developing a Universal Snakebite Antidote

An antidote is different from anti-venom in that it has the potential to counteract many, if not all, of snake venoms' sometimes-fatal effects. Further, such compounds tend to be heat-stable, meaning they can be stored outside of refrigerators, making them far more accessible in developing countries.

Few snake venom antidotes exist, particularly to counteract multiple snake venom effects. However, researchers have revealed that a compound called varespladib appears to be effective against 28 common venoms, making it a potential "universal antidote."1

Dr. Matt Lewin, director of the Center for Exploration and Travel Health at the California Academy of Sciences, has been in search of an antidote that could be used in the field to treat snakebite victims since 2011.

His work focuses on an enzyme in snake venom called sPLA2, which is also produced during inflammation and is known to cause damage to the nervous system, muscles and blood cells. After testing thousands of potential compounds to combat sPLA2, varespladib stood out.

The drug, which was originally developed to fight sepsis, was then tested on a larger scale against a variety of venoms by researchers at the Yale Center for Molecular Discovery in Connecticut. It worked to knock out sPLA2 in 28 venoms tested.

Varespladib was also tested in a rodent study, with impressive results. All the animals given the drug one or five minutes after the venom were alive 24 hours later. In contrast, those not given the drug died within eight hours.

The next step is to test Varespladib in human trials. If it proves to be effective, it could save the lives of snakebite victims around the world.

What to Do If You or Your Dog Are Bitten by a Venomous Snake

If you're bitten by a venomous snake, call 911 or get to the closest emergency room as quickly as possible. Many hospitals keep anti-venom drugs in stock and receiving such drugs in a timely manner could save your life.

If you carry an emergency homeopathic kit with you, like I do when I hike, administer the remedy Lachesis immediately.

In the meantime, remove any tight clothing or jewelry, as the area may begin to swell. If possible, keep the bite at or below the level of your heart, which will help reduce the flow of the venom, and don't apply a tourniquet or apply ice to the wound.2 Stay calm and avoid overexertion.

If your dog is bitten by a snake, it may be difficult to determine if the snake was venomous or not. Always err on the side of caution and seek emergency veterinary care if you're not sure what type of snake bit your pet.

Often, a bite from a venomous snake will cause swelling that spreads rapidly, but there are some cases, such as a bite from a coral snake, in which minimal symptoms will occur at first (but left untreated the bite can be deadly). Additional symptoms of a snakebite in pets include:

  • Swelling
  • Bleeding
  • Pain
  • Low blood pressure
  • Weakness or shortness of breath

Do Not Attempt to Catch the Snake

As with a human snakebite, do not apply a tourniquet to your pet, do not apply ice and do not try to cut out the wound or suck out the venom. Do remove your pet's collar if the bite is near the neck and try to keep the bite below your pet's heart level.

Try to keep your pet calm and carry him to your vehicle to be quickly transported for emergency veterinary care.

If you had a chance to see the snake that bit you or your pet, try to remember its color and any distinctive markings. Do not, however, waste time trying to capture or kill the snake to bring it with you.

This puts you at risk of additional bites and also takes up valuable time that would be better spent seeking medical attention. Keep in mind also that muscle contractions in dead snakes may leave them capable of biting for several hours after death. 

Tips for Avoiding Snakebites

Most snakes in the U.S. are not venomous, but even a non-venomous snakebite can be dangerous for pets. It's best to avoid confrontations with snakes as much as possible using these tips from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Animal Poison Control Center:3

If you see a snake, don't walk by it; turn around and head back the way you came

Clear away snake hiding spots in your yard by removing toys, tools and undergrowth

Be aware that snakes can strike across a distance equal to about half their body length

Keep walkways clear of brush, flowers and shrubs

Clean up any spilled food, fruit or birdseed, which can attract rodents, one of snakes' favorite foods, to your yard

When walking your pet, keep him on a leash

Steer your pet clear of long grasses, bushes and rocks

Familiarize yourself with common snakes in your area, including those that are venomous

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