Michael Olenick: Helicidine – French Miracle Snails

Yves here. If anyone takes up this idea, please remember Naked Capitalism (as in at least send me some of the stuff)! Remember, the US bars reimportation, as in ordering US drugs via Canada. Importing foreign drugs doesn’t fall into that category (so personal use is fine, getting approval for commercial resale is probably not trivial unless you go the dietary supplement route and don’t make medical claims).

By Michael Olenick, a research fellow at INSEAD who writes regularly at Olen on Economics

Over the break Santa brought me an unwanted present, a cold that turned into a cough which wouldn’t go away. Fearing the worst, and annoying my co-workers back in the office, I was finally convinced to see my French doctor.

“Bronchitis,” he said.

“Don’t you need to run some tests,” I asked?

“Half my waiting room has the same,” he said, writing out a prescription. Thinking I should insist on more tests I thought of at least one other friend also coughing and decided my doctor may have a point.

He prescribed an inexpensive antibiotic and, more to the point, something called Helicidine for the cough.

My French is lousy so I try to find US equivalents to see what medicines I’m taking. There was nothing for Helicidine despite that it’s been prescribed for over 40 years in France and derives from a Roman cough remedy. Napoleon’s army apparently schlepped a variant to Russia way back when.

Shrugging my shoulders and tired of coughing down the hatch it went: how bad could it be? The answer… not bad at all and amazingly effective: I stopped coughing.

Amazon’s US site lists 629 results for “cough medicine” and those are the non-prescription medicines. Most contain various chemicals that leave you anywhere from a little sleepy to more stoned than a Burning Man attendee on burn night. Having tried a bunch we brought from the US, before going to the doctor, I found none made much difference.

What’s the miracle ingredient in Helicdine? I wish I wouldn’t have looked it up but it’s apparently the eminently unpatentable snail snot. In all fairness, it’s mixed into a regular cough syrup so one needn’t know it’s snail snot. Like most things the French eat, Helicidine tastes pretty good, not at all medicine like.

Insurance paid so I don’t know the price but I’m certain Helicidine is cheap; almost all meds are cheap in France and flavored snail snot is probably no exception. It’s also safe: two year-olds can take Helicidine and, with no narcotics, I’d imagine overdosing is a near impossibility.

Thinking I might be imagining the effects of my magical French snail snot I did a little research and came across a double-blind placebo-controlled peer-reviewed study. It’s not in my head: inexpensive, non-narcotic, kinda’ tasty if you don’t know what’s in it Helicidine is effective in people with COPD, meaning it works like a champ for those with a garden-variety cough.

If it’s decades-old and has already gone through a double-blind peer-reviewed study why isn’t it a star on US shelves? The US cough and cold market is projected to be $9.3 billion in 2019, with a 1.7% CAGR through 2023. Maybe effective, safe, and cheap snail snot probably lacks the IP protection to attract a US inventor?

There’s a small chance that nobody has thought of it and, if so – good morning, investors; today’s your lucky day to be reading nakedcapitalism – import and rebrand Helicidine and I suspect you’ll quickly make a lot of money. Helicidine’s maker, the tiny Theabel Lucien Pharmaceuticals (private company; 2015 revenue, €108.2M; 267 employees – there I’ve done the homework for you) probably can’t be bothered. Their website was created in 2015 which was also the last time it was updated; their marketing isn’t what we’d describe as aggressive. Or even awake. Then again, prescription pharma marketing is not legal in France so the idea of selling a drug might be completely alien to them.

They say when away from one’s home country it’s the small things that eventually stand out. I could and do think about the big picture politics but admit I miss grocery stores being open at night and on Sunday afternoon. And I miss inexpensive Chinese takeout. I used to miss measurements using the imperial system but once one gets used to metric there’s no going back (who knew a liter of water is one kilogram making it easy to convert volume to weight, though I digress).

But I don’t miss the pharma ads. Or expensive medicines that hardly work. Or the convoluted private medical insurance schemes which probably wouldn’t pay for my miracle snail snot. Or regulators that approve addictive narcotics and other poisons which can be used to make crystal meth while they ignore ancient and more effective snail snot. And one other thing I don’t miss: my cough. Inexpensive all natural Helicidine has all but entirely eliminated it.

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  1. Pat

    This sounds amazing.

    And for myself, pharmaceutical advertising is one of the big three abominations of market change that our captured government allowed, media consolidation and bank deregulation being the other two. A whole lot of politicians should rot in hell for this continued dereliction of duty.

  2. Lee

    Related news, which the squeamish will find more palatable: Chocolate is better for your cough than cough syrup, study says

    You raise the issue of financial incentives as being insufficient to bring about the introduction of Helicidine to the the U.S. I am reminded of the difference in amounts in research funding made available to entomologists who identify and deploy existing non-patentable organisms to control crop pests, versus those who develop novel chemical pesticides, which can be profitably patented.

    But I don’t miss the pharma ads. Or expensive medicines that hardly work.

    In the last year I have been prescribed three medications to control high blood pressure that made me sick: two gave me a cough and one caused the same kind of intestinal damage as does celiac disease. Fortunately these symptoms are with time reversible after discontinuing the drug. I do believe my doctors are trying to extend my tenure above ground, but they have yet to find a way of doing so without making me miserable.

    I think we here in the U.S. need to don yellow vests, and pour into the streets, chanting “Snail snot now!”

  3. DonCoyote

    Here’s a link to the double-blind (“masked”) research study. For those that enjoy scientific polysyllables (most don’t), savor “polysomnographic” in the title and “mucoglycoproteins” in the background: “Helicidine is a nonnarcotic antitussive medication consisting of several mucoglycoproteins extracted from the mucus of the snail Helix pomatia.”

    The wikipedia article on Helix pomatia notes that “Although this species is highly prized as a food, it is difficult to cultivate and rarely farmed commercially.” Which leads me to envision a snail farm where the most snotty snails are kept for their secretions, and the rest sold as food.

    FWIW, my boss, an instructor/administrator at a US pharmacy school, had never heard of Helicidine.

  4. David

    Yes, it’s about 4-5 Euros in your local pharmacy. It’s part of a range of traditional medicines used in France, some of which are generations old. Pharmacists (who are highly qualified) will often recommend such medicines, along with homeopathic and herbal cures, as well as giving general advice on health.

    1. Lee

      Alas, the shipping costs from France to the USA is several times the cost of the medication. I’m gonna suck on some bitter-sweet chocolate and hope for the best.

    2. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

      USSA residents may not be familiar with the idea of qualified pharmacists like they have in France and here in Australia. It’s often possible to rock up with minor ailments, describe them, and get what you need. No MD BS required.

  5. Synoia

    Helicidine cannot possibly be efficacious. It’s not produced by one of our wind3rful, benevolent, pharmaceutical companies, and it does not cost $50 per dose.

    Nor is it addictive.

    It will be banned immediately.

  6. Bulfinch

    I was in Quebec City a few years back and got nailed by swine flu. The local chemist recommended Buckley’s, an OTC concoction that smelled like hair permanent solution and tasted even worse. I choked a few glugs of it back in the airport bathroom and arrived back home a few hours later all but sans symptoms. Really remarkable, albeit nasty stuff.

  7. oaf

    Neither efficiency nor effectiveness guarantee the profitability of *health care* (illness maintenance) in the United states….
    …only Government Mandate can do that!

  8. political economist

    >>”who knew a liter of water is one kilogram making it easy to convert volume to weight”
    Parallel for English version: “a pint’s a pound, the world around”

  9. JBird4049

    Those pestiferous snails are all over California as they were introduced by someone in the early 20th or late 19th century. They will eat any leafy vegetables that you can grow around here. One could harvest the little monsters very easily by growing some lettuce.

  10. Darius

    Is this available throughout the EU. Going to be in Austria, Hungary, and Germany in the fall. How about Canada?

  11. Anders K

    Found this tidbit of an article mentioning the use of Helix pomatia in alleviating whooping cough.

    The FDA stuff it mentions seems to concentrate on getting hold of better sedatives and pain management drugs rather than the cough part, though. Note that article is from 2005.

    Sidenote: did not find any mention of Helix pomatia in the Swedish drug lexicon, so probably more of a French/Central European thing.

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