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Busting the myth of the worth of snake venoms

  • Mitoon Chowdhury, Chattogram Bureau, bdnews24.com
    Published: 2022-05-17 02:17:19 BdST

Legendary 15th-century poet Bipradas Pipilai in his “Manasamangal Kavya” had described in minute detail how an ambitious Manasa, the protector of all serpents, put together an elaborate conspiracy to kill Chand Saudagar’s son Lakshinder on his wedding night by a venomous snake, which required serious convincing, to get the necessary endorsement to be ascended to the status of a goddess.

Perhaps, Manasa would not had gone to such lengths to persuade the snake if she was operating in present-day Bangladesh, since the number of recovered extracted snake venoms in the country is on a steady rise lately, according to law-enforcing agencies.

Though, hypothetically, the goddess may have to come up with serious cash to procure even a little.

For example, back in December 2020, the Rapid Action Battalion claimed to have recovered nine kilograms of venom worth at least Tk 90 million from Dhaka’s Dakkhinkhan. In Nov the same year, the police’s Criminal Investigation Department, or CID, claimed to have recovered Tk 90 million worth of venom from Gazipur’s Kaliakair.

Experts, who have been following the trend, however neither accept the appraising worth of the said venoms nor are they fully convinced about the “authenticity”.

Snake venom researcher Md Abdul Wahed Chowdhury finds these numbers “preposterous”.

“What I’ve seen in state-of-the-art research centres in China and Europe is that only a single gram of venom is enough to study for months,” he said.

“Why on earth would someone pay such a hefty amount for something you do not require much?” Md Abdul, also an assistant professor of Chattogram University’s zoology department, said.

So, what makes venoms so expensive?

Md Abdul’s opinion and views matter because he is one of the handful of people in Bangladesh who work directly with snake venoms at Chattogram Medical College’s Venom Research Centre or VRC, the lone such establishment in the country.

Researchers at the centre have been working to discover methods to prepare anti-venoms by using snake poisons.

Venoms are being studied around the world for the treatment of thrombosis, arthritis, cancer and many other diseases. The VRC, however, does not work on such experiments.

Md Abdul, the co-investigator of VRC, also told the bdnews24.com that he had seen laboratories in China, the Philippines and Vietnam working with extracted venoms to prepare herbal medicines, using traditional methods.

He, however, is not aware of any such endeavours in Bangladesh.

It is illegal to sell snake venom in Bangladesh.

There is hardly any demand for it in the local market either, at least in the naked eyes as no pharmaceutical companies procure snake venoms to prepare anti-venoms, according to Hossain Mohammad Imran, an assistant director of the Directorate General of Drug Administration or DGDA.

Rather, they import anti-venoms directly, he said.

On Friday, police in Chattogram had arrested three men, who identified themselves as “witch doctors”, and recovered a sealed jar full of diluted liquid, which the arrestees described as “snake venoms.”

Md Zahirul Islam, an additional deputy commissioner of police Chattogram Metropolitan Police's Detective Branch (North), told bdnwes24.com that they believe these venoms may be worth Tk 50 million approximately.

The label on the jar says ‘Poison extracted from Cobra snake, made in France’ and it weighs 1.35 kg, the police official said.

ARE RECOVERED VENOMS EVEN REAL?

VRC’s Md Abdul is wary about the authenticity of the venoms too. Rather, he believes under the guise of venom, smugglers may have been bringing in something else altogether.

He recollected a similar situation a few years ago.

Researchers at Rajshahi University’s genetic engineering and biotechnology department confirmed to him that the venom sample he had sent them to authenticate was fake.

The sample was recovered by the Bangladeshi law-enforcers.

“Law-enforcing agencies need to be sure about the genuineness before they go about making a preposterous claim. As I’ve said before, there’s hardly any demand for snake venom for medicinal purposes in Bangladesh, something else is coming in under the guise of snake venom.”

When asked, he told bdnews24.com that he is not aware of the presence of any narcotics property in the venom.

“I’ve read about some rare form of addiction- people take a particular type of venom - which have Neotoxic element - orally.

DB Police’s Deputy Commissioner Md Zahirul said they will send the recovered venoms for authentication after getting the clearance from a court.

[Written in English by Adil Mahmood]