Poison snake venom vial – $12 in India, $20,000 U.S. – and there’s even cheap vaccine for dogs, not people

Matt McMillan was bit by a copperhead snake, while he was camping in July at Fall River Lake, Kansas, and was flown to Via Christi Hospital in Wichita. He recalls “that was $47,600 for that 30-minute ride. To me that’s a lot of money.”

“The snake antivenom is the costly part. I guess that’s $20,000 to $30,000 a vial and I had four,” Matt explained.

Dr. Li Jia, at Via Christi Hospital said they used CroFab. “I don’t know the exact price but it’s very expensive,” he admitted.

McMillan’s insurance covered most of the bills. Otherwise, he would have owed $150,000 to $200,000 for care of one snakebite.

Matt’s huge bill was not unique.

  • After being bitten by a snake, Eric Ferguson reported to the emergency room of a Charlotte hospital in North Carolina. The bite wasn’t too serious, and he needed only four vials of antidote. He was released after 18 hours. His bill was $89,277. He had been charged more than $20,000 per vial for the antidote.
  • Eleven-year-old Benjamin Smith received a massive bite from an eastern diamondback rattlesnake and needed 80 vials of snake venom. His hospital bill was $1,600,000.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported 1.8 million snakebites occurred in 2016, resulting in 94,000 deaths, plus hundreds of thousands of PTSD victims.

If all those 1.8 million victims received just four vials of antivenom at $20,000 each, the bill would be $144 billion a year, not counting ambulance and helicopter rides. By comparison, that’s more than the total 2018 Defense Department budget for its 2.2 million personnel ($134 billion).

But nobody – except Americans – would put up with paying as much as $20,000 a vial for antivenom.

Go online. You can buy universal antivenom from dozens of suppliers in India for less than $20 a vial, a savings of $19,980 per vial. The brand on the right is $5.99 a bottle. The average is about $12.

That doesn’t mean that hospitals are paying a fortune for antivenom, because – like everything else – they mark up prices to astronomical levels. A $20,000 drug could cost the hospital only one tenth the price that is charged to the patient.

When Eric Ferguson (example above) complained about the exorbitant cost of his treatment, a hospital spokesperson said that the difference in price was due to the expense of storing, preparing, and administering the antidote, as well as the cost of dealing with Medicare, Medicaid, and insurance companies.

One reason for high drug prices is granting the exclusive right to produce a drug type by the FDA. That eliminates competition, secures the market for one company and instills acceptance as the best treatment, even when competitors are later allowed.

If there is only one manufacturer of antivenom in the United States, and no regulation of prices, you can’t blame “it’s-just-business” corporate heads from gouging the public.

Naturalist Jack Ewing, who has researched the Costa Rica rain forest since 1970, raised an interesting question about antivenom several years ago, when he reacted to a letter from his brother Rex that mentioned his dog being bitten on the muzzle by a rattlesnake.

“Knowing that the only poisonous snakes in that part of Colorado are prairie rattlers, I figured that Maggie would survive,” Ewing recalled.

I wrote Rex to inquire about the bite. In the correspondence that ensued it came to light that Maggie had been vaccinated against rattlesnake bite, the vaccine cost about $25, and apparently gave her a partial immunity. Other than severe swelling in her face for about 24 hours, Maggie recovered just fine. It wasn’t necessary to take her to a veterinarian.

Apparently there is no vaccine for people.

Please read that again. There is a vaccine for dogs, but there is no vaccine for people.

Why? Is any research been done for vaccinating humans? Or, would such a vaccine ruin the market for selling $20,000 vials of antivenom?

Besides his interest in science, Ewing owns the Hacienda Baru Lodge in Costa Rica, which offers hikes and other outdoor rain forest activities, including the climbing of very tall trees, demonstrated in the video below.

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