Peak star anise?

The Chinese spice contains the key ingredient for manufacturing the antiviral flu medicine Tamiflu. Prices are rising.

By Andrew Leonard
Published May 6, 2009 8:03PM (EDT)

The price of star anise is rising in Chinese markets, reports China Daily, (found via Danwei.) The ostensible reason: A big production ramp-up for the drug Tamiflu, believed to be the most effective antiviral remedy for bird and swine flu.

The key ingredient in Tamiflu is shikimic acid, which can be extracted from star anise. But it's not easy -- it's a time consuming procedure that derives only one kilogram of acid from every 30 kilograms of pods. There are other ways to produce shikimic acid, but so far, the cheapest method for industrial scale production is to use star anise, the fruit of an evergreen shrub that is grown mostly in southern China. According to some reports, 80 percent of China's star anise harvest goes to Roche, Tamiflu's manufacturer.

I always love learning things like the fact that the number one defense against a global flu pandemic manufactured by one of the world's biggest and most technologically advanced pharmaceutical companies is dependent on a shrub that Chinese peasants have been farming for thousands of years. But I wonder how much of the surge in prices is due to Roche scrambling to boost its supply lines, and how much can be blamed on the average Chinese cook deciding it might be prudent to add a little more spice to the Twice-Cooked Pork.

From the China Daily:

Last week, Health Minister Chen Zhu suggested at a news conference that people add star aniseed when cooking pork because it would "certainly be a good treatment for the flu".

That may not be true. According to a National Geographic story published in 2005, after a bird flu scare sent star anise prices skyrocketing, "star anise is of little or no help to flu sufferers. Shikimic acid is only extracted from the fruit's distinctive seedpod after a lengthy and complicated process whose details are kept secret by Roche."

(Although it's not clear to me exactly how "secret" the process is. As I noted nearly three years ago, in 2005, fearful that Roche would be unable to supply enough of the drug to effectively combat a bird flu pandemic, the government of Taiwan issued a "compulsory license" giving local pharmaceutical companies legal permission to manufacture generic versions of Tamiflu. What I didn't realize at the time was that the key ingredient for the drug came from not too far away, across the Taiwan straits.)

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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China Globalization How The World Works Swine Flu