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Snake Farm Feels Bite as Drugmakers Reduce Venom Orders

Snake Farm Feels Bite as Drugmaker Clients Cut Venom Orders
Latoxan’s employees extract venom from snakes including deadly black mambas and rattlesnakes by squeezing their jaws with their bare hands, a process they refer to as “milking.” Photographer: Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg

Venomous snakes in the French town of Valence are feeling the bite of Europe’s economic crisis.

Latoxan, a company that farms snakes and scorpions to sell their venom to drugmakers including Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi and Pfizer Inc., expects sales to drop 30 percent this year as clients cut back on orders, said Chief Executive Officer Harold de Pomyers.

Pomyers, who with just seven staff took in sales of 1.6 million euros ($2.1 million) in 2011, said he’s reducing his number of snakes to 500 from as many as 800 because of lower demand from Paris-based Sanofi and other drugmakers. Sanofi and Latoxan ended their collaboration this year, a Sanofi spokesman said by e-mail.

“We are currently suffering from the crisis,” Pomyers said in an interview with Bloomberg Television at the company’s headquarters, located in a residential area of Valence, near Lyon. “Sales are falling in European countries such as Italy, Greece or Spain, but also in the United States.”

Latoxan employees extract venom from snakes including deadly black mambas and rattlesnakes by squeezing their jaws with their bare hands, a process they refer to as “milking.” Snakes that are no longer needed will be killed or given away, according to two members of staff who take part in the milking process.

“Fortunately we only have one accident every 18 months,” Pomyers said.

Morphine Alternative

One gram of venom can cost as much as 4,000 euros. The product is used by pharmaceutical companies for research and to manufacture anti-venom, according to Pomyers. Scientists from the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology in Sophia Antipolis, France, have isolated two new molecules from black mamba venom and are studying them as a possible alternative to morphine, he said.

About 5 million people worldwide get bitten by snakes each year and an estimated 100,000 die, according to Jean-Philippe Chippaux, a snake expert and director at the Development Research Institute in Cotonou, Benin.

“You need very good venom from good snakes” to make reliable antidotes, says Chippaux. In the past year, Pomyers says he has diversified by adding about 3,000 scorpions to the French farm. Their venom can sell for as much as 35,000 euros a gram.

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