Australia holds a fearsome international reputation as home to many of the world’s most dangerous snakes, spiders and marine creatures.They generate fear among the population due to the potentially fatal consequences of a bite but the reality is that they pose a relatively low risk of injury or death due to the low incidence of bites and stings and the availability of treatments.
In order to help reduce the incidence of venom-related injury and mortality, CSL has been supplying antivenoms for the treatment of bites and stings – known as ‘Products of National Significance’ - for the past 90 years.
How are antivenoms made?
Antivenom is a biological product used in the treatment of venomous bites or stings. The process of producing antivenom begins by manually ‘milking’ venom from snakes and spiders. Then, based on the concept of ‘inducing immunity’, small quantities of venom are introduced to host animals. Hyperimmune plasma is drawn from the host animals and purified for administering to affected humans. To help explain how antivenoms are made, CSL has produced a short documentary, available here.
CSL’s research into antivenom production started in 1927 in collaboration with the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) and Melbourne Zoo. Driven by three researchers, Dr Neil Hamilton Fairley and Dr Charles Kellaway from WEHI and Dr Frederick Morgan, director of CSL, the team focused on producing a solution that would combat sickness and prevent death following a snakebite. In 1934, they were successful in manufacturing the first Tiger Snake antivenom for clinical use, leading to CSL forming a separate Antivenene Research department for the first time in the company’s history. This signaled the commencement of CSL’s official research activities into antivenom therapies, a commitment which endures to this day.
Over the years, CSL has partnered with many of Australia’s leading venom experts. Notable contributors to CSL’s antivenoms program include:
- CSL’s ‘snake man’, Charlie Ricardo, who kept snakes for milking until 1949 when private snake collectors were contracted to collect the samples
- Eric Worrell, who opened the Australian Reptile Park in 1959 which became the main supplier of venoms for the production of antivenom for snakes and funnel-web spiders
- Saul Wiener who developed stonefish antivenom in 1962 – the first antivenom in the world for a marine creature - strengthening CSL’s status as a world leader in the development of antivenoms
- Struan Sutherland who made the famous breakthrough which led to the release of funnel-web antivenom in 1980 and who also founded the Australian Venom Research Unit at the University of Melbourne, in 1994.
In 2007 the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a report that revealed snakebites were neglected as a major health issue globally. Having played a significant role in supplying antivenoms in Australia, CSL responded to the findings by working with manufacturers around the world to create guidelines for the production, control and regulation of antivenom. In 2008, these experts agreed to a new approach and the Global Snakebite Initiative was launched, which is still in practice.
Today, CSL’s subsidiary company, Seqirus, is the sole producer of antivenoms for some of Australia’s most venomous creatures, as well as maintaining a small but vital distribution around the world to aquariums and zoos where venomous Australian animals are kept. Seqirus also provides a range of antivenoms to Papua New Guinea, Mauritius and Malaysia.
In keeping with a commitment to educate the community about first aid for venomous bites and stings, Seqirus launched a free smartphone app in 2013 – Australian Bites & Stings: First Aid Guide to Australian Venomous Creatures. This unique app provides up-to-date first aid information to ensure anyone planning to spend time outdoors is well prepared for venomous bites and stings. The app is available to download on both iOS and Android.