The Chinese spice star anise contains shikimic acid, one of the active components in Tamiflu. Roughly 90 percent of the world's star anise is from China.
The Chinese spice star anise contains shikimic acid, one of the active components in Tamiflu. Roughly 90 percent of the world's star anise is from China. Louisa Lim/NPR
The price of star anise at markets like this one in Shanghai has shot up some 30 percent since the swine flu outbreak became widespread in Mexico.
The price of star anise at markets like this one in Shanghai has shot up some 30 percent since the swine flu outbreak became widespread in Mexico. Louisa Lim/NPR
The star-shaped, licorice-smelling spice is normally used in stews and five-spice powder.
The star-shaped, licorice-smelling spice is normally used in stews and five-spice powder. Louisa Lim/NPR
The swine flu outbreak has infected more than 8,000 people worldwide. In China, only three confirmed cases have been reported so far, but a surprising group of people is feeling the virus' economic impact.
Spice prices in a dusty covered market in Shanghai may seem an unlikely barometer of the level of public panic about new pandemic flus. But many people here believe that a star-shaped spice is a silver bullet against swine flu, and before that, bird flu. It's star anise, an orangey-red, licorice-smelling spice normally used in stews and five-spice powder.
The reason, as a spokesman for the drug-maker Roche explains, is that there are only two ways to produce the active ingredient for the flu-fighting drug Tamiflu — and one of them depends on star anise.
"One of the most important ingredients for Tamiflu is shikimic acid," says the spokesman, Cao Yong. "This stuff can be developed from star anise and the fermentation process in E. coli. That's the link."
Thirty pounds of star anise pods produce only one pound of shikimic acid. And 90 percent of the world's star anise is from China. Four years ago, when bird flu was the next big pandemic threat, a star anise shortage caused bottlenecks in Tamiflu production.
Governments around the world have ordered 220 million courses of Tamiflu amid the current outbreak, and Cao says Roche has enough ingredients to avoid problems.
In China, ordinary shoppers are using more star anise partly because of a cooking tip from none other than the country's health minister, Chen Zhu. He suggested at a news conference that using star anise when cooking pork would be "a very good option to deal with swine flu."
There is no scientific proof that this is true. And there's no known risk of getting swine flu from eating pork.
Yet from the moment the outbreak became widespread in Mexico, the cost of star anise in China started to rise, says spice seller Huang Jinshan.
The retail price of the spice has soared some 30 percent, to about a dollar a pound. But Huang, scooping up handfuls of star anise pods to weigh them, is unimpressed. He recalls fondly the run on white vinegar four years ago after rumors that it could cure bird flu.
Within a fortnight, he says, a 20-cent bottle of white vinegar was selling for $7 — a thirtyfold increase. Then the market completely collapsed.
That's unlikely to happen this time, Huang says, because there are fewer rumors. But he admits that he's thinking about stockpiling star anise, just in case.