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Cure bird flu with natural Chinese herb
You NuoChina Daily  Updated: 2005-10-31 05:21

The following is not meant to be a piece of expert opinion, but some wild thoughts of an individual (myself) on the ongoing alarm caused by bird flu.

Someone give me an answer, please. In a bird flu season, what can we do if we don't have the luck to get the Tamiflu drug? Can we instead have more meals cooked with Star Aniseeds, the drug's main material?

We have all heard about Tamiflu, reportedly the only major anti-bird flu drug that is available on Earth. As individuals in rich countries, and in rich cities of developing countries, are stockpiling the drug in their homes, we are told that the world simply does not have the capability to manufacture enough of it in a short time.

Implicitly, those who cannot get hold of Tamiflu, either because they cannot afford it or because they are unlucky while waiting for the supply, just have to die, or at least run a greater risk of losing their lives.

According to various sources, a full scale pandemic could cost China and Southeast Asia 4.5 million deaths and as much as US$150 billion to US$200 billion.

Every day, people are reading about the disease spreading to Europe, and talking about it spreading to Africa, where lives are the least protected. And there is a chance that the virus could mutate, take some new shapes and properties, and become even more threatening.

But few people have heard of Star Anise, or Star Aniseeds, which Chinese call "bajiao," or Eight-Angled Seeds, and traditionally use as a spice in oriental cooking. The chief ingredient of Tamiflu, called Shikimic Acid, is extracted from Star Aniseeds through a process patented by Roche Holding AG, the Swiss pharmaceutical company.

Last night, on Google's English news search, I got only 123 results for "aniseed; flu" as against 45,700 results for "bird flu." That, as a proportion, is a meagre 0.2 per cent.

The comparison speaks for itself. Obviously, the global press has far greater enthusiasm for spreading fear than useful information. And by spreading fear, the press is in effect helping pharmaceutical companies, global and local, generate the ever-growing demand for their products.

I didn't get to know the crucial role of Star Aniseeds until I stumbled on a report about a Taiwan health official declaring the island had developed its own Tamiflu equivalent, and had succeeded in only six months to achieve what Roche had achieved in 12 years. How many consumers would seriously consider buying a modern medicine developed in only six months? I wondered.

But the story does not end just there. Taiwan is not the only place to ignore the Roche patent, it seems. According to the Indian Express, Cipla, an Indian drug maker, recently also claimed to be nearly ready to launch its own version of Tamiflu, after already securing the material supply from China.

What intrigues me even more is that Star Aniseeds were not just a stock in the old-style Chinese kitchen. The star-shaped dark brown little fruits were also used as a medical herb to cure infection and aches, for at least six centuries.

If, as one may interpret the claims from Taiwan and India, something can be done in such a short time to turn the raw Star Aniseeds into a modern commodity, its process might not be utterly complicated. And if, as one can derive from the economic logic, pharmaceutical companies are all chasing their own monopolies, they must not like the idea of anyone curing a disease by using a natural resource directly, as the ancient medicine men would have suggested.

But since it has been known for such a long time that the raw Star Aniseeds have a curing effect, and that any short, if not hasty, attempts to make modern medicines would involve untold hazards, a safer way to use them might just be to use them without the industrial process, as a herb or as a spice.

However, what a pity that today there is not a single modern scientist to tell us whether this is doable - when many Chinese, having got the information that I got, are doing it anyway.

If it is doable, having a daily pot of stewed chicken (but never a sick one) spiced with Star Aniseeds would be a much tastier, and more affordable alternative for a developing society.

And any country can import some seeds of the plant, or order some shipments of the dried fruits from China. They will never cost a king's ransom.


(China Daily 10/31/2005 page4)

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