Star anise sought after in bird flu fight

The ancient spice star anise is apparently the main source of shikimic acid, a key ingredient in the bird flu drug Tamiflu, and farmers in China's southern region of Guangxi are being encouraged to capitalise on the growing demand for the spice.

The brown star-shaped spice has been used for centuries to flavour soups and stews and seasons cola, toothpaste and perfume.

Interest in the exotic spice has grown along with the spread of bird flu which has spread from Asia into Europe, but many farmers who grow the exotic spice have considered chopping down their star anise trees in order to grow more lucrative crops such as fruit.

The H5N1 strain of bird flu has already killed almost 70 people in Asia, but to date all of those infected were in close contact with sick birds.

Experts do however fear that the virus could mutate and spread easily between humans killing millions of people.

Although Tamiflu does not cure bird flu, governments worldwide are frantically attempting to stockpile Tamiflu, made by the Swiss firm Roche and another anti-flu drug made by GlaxoSmithKline, Relenza, in the hope that they can stave off an outbreak.

Experts believe the drug will help reduce the severity of the virus if taken early enough.

The mad scramble to access the drug has thrust star anise into the limelight.

In Hong Kong the cost of a box of Tamiflu has risen from about US$25 to as much as US$130 in a matter of weeks, and many doctors and pharmacies have already run out.

The price of star anise has also more than doubled and some pharmaceutical firms in China have snapped up hundreds of tonnes of the exotic spice in the hope that they could make their own Tamiflu or develop other bird flu remedies.

The sudden attention has given a boost to the small star anise world, centred in Guangxi as its farmers harvest about 70 percent of the world's total output of the spice.

An unusually small harvest in 2001, saw prices soar to the highest anyone had ever seen but since then they have declined sharply, and many farmers have been struggling to survive.

Experts in the industry say that bird flu may well save the star anise market despite the lack of enthusiasm on the part of farmers to continue to grow it.

Most farmers had already sold most of their crop before the star anise craze hit and prices rose.

About a third of the shikimic acid Roche uses is man-made and the firm is reportedly seeking ways to expand the amount in an attempt to become more flexible and independent.

Others in the spice trade say the hard-to-grow spice means demand will eclipse supply for a while and forecast a great shortage of star anise seed.

But should Tamiflu turn out to be ineffective against any new form of bird flu, or if the virus develops a resistance to the drug, the spice farmers of Guangxi and the rest of the world would suffer.

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