for National Geographic News
A licorice-flavored spice that's long been a staple on Asian tables may now be a major weapon against global influenza.
Part of Chinese cuisine's five-spice powder, star anise is also the primary source of shikimic acid used to produce oseltamivir phosphate, sold under the brand name Tamiflu.
With fears of a bird-flu pandemic rising, the antiviral flu-treatment drug is in demandand so is the once obscure fruit used to produce it.
China Daily, a government-run English-language newspaper, reported early this month that star anise prices in some Chinese markets had doubled in a week's time. United States spice merchants are seeing spikes as well.
"This week it has jumped considerably in price, and now supply issues are becoming a problem as well, when a month ago there was plenty of supply," said Dennis Knock of Frontier Natural Foods Co-Op in Norway, Iowa.
The Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche is currently the only company producing Tamiflu.
This year the drug's revenues more than doubled from the three-month period ending in June to the three-month period ending in September, when Tamiflu rang up sales worth 211 million U.S. dollars.
Roche plans to produce some 300 million doses of Tamiflu by 2007. This year it will produce about 55 million doses.
The Tamiflu boom and subsequent media coverage have created a buzz around star anise.
"There has been a lot of emotional run-up in prices, both in China and in the U.S," explained Ed Deep, a spice broker with A.A. Sayia & Company in Hoboken, New Jersey.
"In New York it has gone from around $1.30 a pound [about half a kilogram] up to $1.70 a pound."
"[Roche] is buying a larger amount of star anise to extract the shikimic acid that they need for Tamiflu," Deep added. He also noted that some of the demand is driven by "people who believe that star anise will help with the fluwhich we believe is erroneous."
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