A shot in the arm

Swine flu is proving to be profitable for vaccine makers (and garlic farmers)

A shot in the arm

Be brave

According to Chen Zhu, China’s health minister, cooking pork with star anise is a “very good option to deal with swine flu”.

Although there is no scientific proof that this is true, star anise – an orange-red, liquorice-smelling spice often used in stews – is still widely considered as the silver bullet against the swine flu threat by many Chinese.

That’s because star anise is an active ingredient for the flu-fighting drug Tamiflu. It is used to develop shikimic acid, the anti-viral counter to both bird flu and swine flu strains, the drug-maker Roche explains.

China is the largest exporter of star anise, accounting for about 90% of the world’s supply. Four years ago, when fears surged of a bird flu pandemic, star anise shortages were a major bottleneck in Tamiflu production.

And renewed demand for Tamiflu in recent months has led to a tenfold increase in the price of star anise, according to 21CN Business Herald. Prices in Guangxi, China’s star anise capital, have gone up to Rmb21 per 500 gram, compared to only Rmb2-3 earlier this year.

But anise has not seen the greatest price rises. Garlic prices are up 50-fold since last October, and again it seems that a belief that garlic may prevent swine flu has something to do with it.

News that more H1N1 (swine flu) cases are being reported on the mainland may add to garlic’s growing appeal. The latest data from November showed that H1N1 flu is now responsible for nearly 80% of all flu infections in the country. In September, that figure was only about 20% across the nation.

China was the first country to declare that it had developed a vaccine for swine flu, and by late October it had produced nearly 53 million doses (see WiC26). Health minister Chen Zhu said in November that the country is vaccinating 1.5 million people a day against the virus.

In fact, China is already the world’s third largest vaccine market, with annual sales of more than $1 billion. Vaccines are one of healthcare priorities that countries choose to spend money on, because they prevent disease and save money in the long run, says the Wall Street Journal.

The market’s potential already has foreign firms interested. Last month, Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis announced that it has bought an 85% stake in privately-owned Zhejiang Tianyuan for Rmb850 million ($125 million). Currently, Novartis is only allowed to sell vaccines for flu and rabies, but the Tianyuan acquisition will allow the Swiss drug maker to gain wider access to the vaccine market, overcoming local authorities’ preference to purchase vaccines from domestic manufacturers, says 21CN Business Herald.

In a statement, the Swiss drugmaker said it aims to “expand Tianyuan’s product portfolio and R&D pipeline,” and will also use the acquisition to help introduce Novartis vaccines in China. The acquisition will expand Novartis’ “sales and relationship network within the country,” as well as its relations with regulators, says a company spokeswoman.

GlaxoSmithKlein has made similar moves. In October, the UK-based pharmaceutical group announced that it had entered into a joint venture with mainland biotech firm Jiangsu Walvax. Earlier, GSK also took a 40% stake in Shenzhen Neptunus, a local vaccine maker.

Both Tianyuan and Neptunus make the swine flu vaccine currently being used by the government, so they are positioned to cash in should the current scare widen to a pandemic. Star anise and garlic farmers should do all right too.

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