Healthcare

Tikka to Tamiflu

A Chinese spice to ward off the flu

Star product

Even a global pandemic can have a silver lining.

In China, news of the latest flu strain H1N1 will not unduly perturb growers of the star aniseed spice. As cultivators of the core ingredient in leading anti-flu drugs like Tamiflu, they will expect a profitable harvest this year.

Star aniseed (or star anise) is an ancient cooking spice, also used extensively in traditional Chinese medicine. It crops up in other national cuisines too; in Indian masala dishes, for instance, as well as in bowls of the Vietnamese noodle soup pho.

The aniseed spice is derived from a dry, star-shaped fruit harvested between March and May from small evergreen trees in the southwest of the country. It is then synthesised into shikimic acid, the major ingredient in anti-viral drugs like Roche’s Tamiflu. It takes 30 kilograms of anise seed pods to produce 1kg of shikimic acid.

China produces 80% of global supply, with the large majority destined for pharmaceutical usage.

Production is usually sufficient to meet demand, although experts worry that the aniseed harvesting (and the 10 stage process in which the shikimic acid is then isolated from the spice) is an obvious bottleneck to any rapid ramp up in demand – as the recent swine flu outbreak has highlighted.

During previous scares Roche has tapered off distribution to markets where stockpiling of the remedy is thought to be threatening wider supply.

There is no sign of panic buying on a major scale at the moment, although demand is picking up. Reuters reports that American antiviral retail prescriptions soared to 277,196 for the week ending May 1, compared with 14,366 for the week before.

All good news for star anise pickers, of course, and the China Daily notes that the market price is up 30% since the onset of the latest scare. But at Rmb10 per kilo, the cultivators can hardly be accused of price gouging.

Nevertheless, Chen Zhu, China’s health minister, has suggested that locals should think about stocking up. Adding the spice to pork dishes would be “a good treatment for the flu,” he suggested.

If the World Health Organisation has the time to offer culinary advice itself, it might think about putting out a directive recommending widespread consumption of lamb rogan josh and chicken tikka, both dishes with a star anise flavouring.

Curry lovers and owners of Indian restaurants might then glimpse a swine flu silver lining too.


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