Two Cuban Companies Compete in the Blue-Scorpion Fraud Against Cancer

The directors of Labiofam in Las Tunas launched a crusade on Wednesday to contain “the indiscriminate hunting of the blue scorpion.” (Periódico 26)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, January 5, 2024 — Gema, a 65-year-old from Havana, received the news in 2013 that she had liver cancer at a fairly advanced stage. In a rapid physical decline, she clung to the recommendation made by a neighbor to look for blue scorpion venom, because the product could “stop the advance of cancer.” In a tiny jar accompanied by a dropper, the woman obtained a few millimeters of a liquid that she had to mix with plenty of water and consume every day. When the amount of venom in the bottle decreased, she made new contacts to buy the “miracle formula.”

Without a label, expiration date and sold in the informal market, the veracity and effectiveness of the product was based on trust. “The person who sells it to me gets it from a laboratory, where they discovered its properties,” she said one day to friends who were curious about the venom. Hundreds of pesos later and after many glasses of diluted drops, she died. She still had two jars of scorpion venom left that her nephew sold to another interested patient. A couple of small, amber-colored jars, unlabeled, surrounded by promises of improvement and recovery.

Patients from all over the world have come to Cuba as a lifeline since, in 2011, the state-owned Labiofam introduced Vidatox, a drug whose active ingredient was the venom of the Cuban blue scorpion (Rhopalurus junceus), to which it attributed “proven anti-tumor, analgesic and anti-inflammatory efficacy.” The researcher in charge of explaining the product – and its master mind – was the young microbiologist Alexis Díaz, who then reported that there were already customers eager to try it in Spain, Italy, Albania and several Latin American countries.

In a few years, the drug was so discredited worldwide that some customers and relatives of deceased patients ended up calling it “Cuban water”

Vidatox was not the hen with the golden egg that Havana was hoping for, although hundreds of patients bought it, and many paid for months of treatments in Cuba. Soon, international oncologists began to warn cancer patients about the scam. In a few years, the drug was so discredited worldwide that some clients and relatives of deceased patients ended up calling it “Cuban water.” To keep a low profile, Labiofam then began to qualify Vidatox as a homeopathic product (a pseudotherapy based on water and alcohol solutions).

In an unprecedented acrobatic maneuver in Cuban Public Health, the creative team of Vidatox – including Díaz – shut down Labiofam and formed a new international research group, Lifescozul, which claimed to sell “the most advanced formulation of the blue scorpion venom” – Escozul – while harshly criticizing Vidatox.

Vidatox, they insist, is manufactured by Labiofam, a company that specializes in “products for veterinary use,” and does not contain “a single molecule of the blue scorpion venom.” But the criticism doesn’t stop there, Díaz’s team warns. Vidatox not only does not cure anyone but also “causes and accelerates metastases due to the high degree of alcohol it contains.”

On the contrary, they argue, the Escozul brand – “created by Cuban scientists” supervised by Díaz – is available in more than 30 countries, although “it is in the Health Registration phase” for commercialization. The company’s website has several spaces devoted  to “scientific data” disproving the effectiveness of Vidatox.

The fine print of the Lifescozul chronology clarifies the origins of the scism: the group “was founded by Cuban scientists and doctors who once worked at Labiofam and decided not to continue when the management of Labiofam chose to market a homeopathic product without the properties of the blue scorpion venom. That product was called Vidatox 30CH.”

The Cuban State facilitates the work of Lifescozul and does not penalize its activity in any way. The most solid proof is the commercialization of treatments with blue scorpion venom offered to foreigners

How is a discord of that level possible between two pharmaceutical companies that belong to the same State health system? Does the Ministry of Public Health punish Díaz and his team for selling a drug that competes with Vidatox, manufactured in the same laboratories as the advertised Cuban vaccines against the coronavirus?

The answer is negative: the Cuban State facilitates Lifescozul’s work and does not penalize its activity in any way. The most solid proof is the commercialization of treatments with the blue scorpion venom. The treatment is offered to foreign patients and has to be done in a hotel or in hospital facilities administered by the Government, such as the La Pradera International Health Center, founded by Fidel Castro in 1996, and the Lifescozul headquarters in Havana.

If a cancer patient wants to be treated by Escozul in Cuba, he will have to pay $1,200 – perhaps more, if he goes in the “high season” for tourism – and spend three months in Cuba for an initial treatment. The cost includes the visa, insurance, stay, transportation, food and the “appointment with the producer.” If he wants the medicine to be sent to his country, he has to pay between 80 and 110 dollars per month for the duration of the treatment. But, they clarify, the most advisable thing is to go to the Island.

The empire continues to grow, always under “the highest authority” of Díaz. In 2018, they agreed on a research project with the University of Chile and the University of Talca, also in Chile. In 2021, they signed two contracts in Mexico, with the companies Pharmometrica and Research Pro. In 2022, they closed a deal with the Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico, to give more scientific weight to Escozul’s work. Díaz’s ambition is to obtain the Health Registry of the product, which would allow its authorized sale worldwide.

Labiofam managers in Las Tunas launched a crusade this Wednesday to contain “the indiscriminate hunting of the blue scorpion

However, new obstacles have appeared, and the future of Escozul and Vidatox – which the Cuban Government continues to sell – is in danger from the same source. The directors of Labiofam in Las Tunas launched a crusade on Wednesday to contain “the indiscriminate hunting of the blue scorpion and the misuse of its venom for health treatments.”

In the northern part of the province, where scorpions abound, an emergency meeting took place with the hunters, to make them see “reason.” Labiofam informed them that the arachnids “are part of the food chain with insects and pests in their diet,” so their extinction would be a problem for the local fauna.

Negotiation through the way of conscience did not, apparently, have too many results. Labiofam ended up promising “a payment system to hunters,” to “include them in the company’s human resources and thus ensure that the activity is safe.” To manufacture Vidatox in Las Tunas, they pointed out, between 400 and 600 scorpions must be hunted annually. They remain in captivity for two years and then, supposedly, about 14,000 are “freed” every year throughout the country.

Despite the “campaigns” of Escozul, Labiofam continues to sell its panacea against cancer and, in October 2022, protested because the United States prevented the purchase of about 50,000 bottles of the drug – the price of each: $40.78 – to “meet the potential demand” of Vidatox in that country. It was two million dollars that Cuba stopped earning due to the well-known blockade, said the company, which also complained about the “disinformation campaigns that hinder its registration and commercialization in some markets,” although it did not allude to Escozul.

The medical consensus on both products is categorical: it is not scientifically proven that scorpion venom can cure cancer. The prestigious cancer research center Memorial Sloan Kettering – founded in 1884 in the United States – has explained that the benefits attributed to Escozul and Vidatox “are mostly based on anecdotes, testimonies and experiments that may not have been executed correctly.” And it adds that “in Cuba, where these products originate, the Government rejected the use of Escozul in 2009 for not having enough information.”

Beyond the controversies between Vidatox and Escozul, the very expensive treatments and the undisclosed numbers of deaths of patients who trusted Labiofam and Lifescozul, the stories of patients who relied on scorpion venom are tragic, but they haven’t stopped the false hopes.

Translated by Regina Anavy


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