Interest in Chinese Star Anise as Source of Drug for Avian Flu

  • Avian Flu (Bird Flu)
  • Shikimic Acid
  • Star Anise, Chinese (Illicium verum)
  • Tamiflu
  • Date: January 13, 2006 HC# 120551-296

    Re: Interest in Chinese Star Anise as Source of Drug for Avian Flu

    Goodman P. Star rises in fight against bird flu. Washington Post. 2005;November 18:

    This article is one of many recent publications in the popular press on Chinese star anise (a.k.a. baijiao [Mandarin Chinese]; Illicium verum) and its relationship to the growing concern about avian flu. The fruits of this plant, for thousands of years cultivated in southern China as a spice and medicine, have assumed new importance as the source of a key ingredient in Tamiflu® (Roche Holding AG, Switzerland), a pharmaceutical product which reduces the severity of H5N1 avian influenza ("bird flu").

    Guangzi Province produces 90% of China's star anise, comprising 90% of the global supply. Demand for star anise fruit has created a bonanza for growers, and more so for middlemen in the southern China spice trade, and seems to be outstripping supply. Shikimic acid is extracted from the dried fruits in China. Roche relies on these supplies for about two-thirds of the shikimic acid needed to make Tamiflu, and plans to increase production tenfold over 2003 levels by the end of 2006 to meet anticipated demand as the "pandemic" spreads.

    Since newly-planted star anise trees take six years to bear fruit, it is unclear how the sudden demand will be met. However, Roche is expanding its efforts to produce shikimic acid in a fermentation process that would not require star anise, so the "feast" for producers and suppliers could quickly become a "famine". Interestingly, Gilead Sciences, Inc. (California, USA), which first developed Tamiflu, used quinic acid, from cinchona tree bark (a.k.a. Peruvian fever-bark; Cinchona officinalis) instead of shikimic acid in its process.

    Traditionally, Chinese star anise gives a licorice-like flavor to cooked meats, especially pork; and treats colic in babies, and headaches, abdominal pain and intestinal distress in adults. Modern farmers in northeastern China add it to feed, because it helps livestock stay warm. Traditional export markets for the fruit include France, where it flavors anisette liqueurs, and the U.S., in "5-spice powders" for Chinese cooking.

    Star anise will not prevent flu. Tamiflu is a pharmaceutical product which "does not remotely resemble the original material". Some star anise teas sold in the U.S. have contained Japanese star anise (I. anisatum), which has a toxic compound not found in the Chinese variety. This has also been a problem with some "gripe-water" products, used for infant colic. Once dried and processed, the two varieties species cannot be distinguished visually.

    — Mariann Garner-Wizard

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