RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Of the thousands of cases of swine flu worldwide, there have been only two confirmed cases of the virus in China. Even so, one surprising group of people is feeling the economic impact of the flu outbreak, as NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Shanghai.
LOUISA LIM: 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 one such spice is the silver bullet against swine flu and before that, bird flu. It's the orangey-red, licorice-smelling star-shaped pod, called star anise. It's normally used in stews and five-spice powder.
But as Cao Yong, spokesman for drug maker Roche, explains, there are only two ways to produce the active ingredient for the flu-fighting drug Tamiflu, and one of them depends on star anise.
Mr. CAO YONG (Spokesman, Roche): One of the most important ingredients for Tamiflu is shikimic acid. This stuff can be developed from both star anise and also from the fermentation process in E. coli. That's the link.
LIM: Thirty pounds of star anise pods only produce 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. But Cao Yong says this time around, Roche has enough ingredients to avoid problems. To date, 220 million courses of Tamiflu have been ordered by governments.
In China, ordinary shoppers are also using more star anise, partly because of this cooking tip given at a press conference by none other than China's health minister, Chen Zhu.
Mr. CHEN ZHU (Health Minister, China): (Through translator) So, I suggest that we can cook the pork with star anise. This will be a very good option to deal with swine flu.
LIM: There is no scientific proof that this is true. And there's no known risk of flu from eating pork.
Mr. HUANG JINSHAN: (Chinese language spoken)
LIM: Yet from the moment when swine flu broke out in Mexico, the price of star anise started to go up, says spice seller Huang Jinshan.
(Soundbite of rustling)
LIM: He scoops up handfuls of the spice to weigh them. The retail price has soared 30 percent, to about a dollar a pound. But Mr. Huang is unimpressed. He remembers fondly the run on white vinegar four years ago, when a rumor went around that white vinegar could cure bird flu.
Mr. HUANG: (Chinese language spoken)
LIM: To begin with, he says, one bottle of white vinegar costs about 20 cents. Within a fortnight, the price had increased thirtyfold, to $7 a bottle. Then the market collapsed completely. This time, he says, that's unlikely to happen since there are fewer rumors. But, he admits, he is thinking about stockpiling star anise, just in case.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.
MONTAGNE: One more note on the swine flu outbreak in this country. New York State is reporting its first death related to swine flu. An assistant principal at a public school in Queens died yesterday of complications from the disease. Also yesterday, New York City officials announced that five more schools in Queens have been closed. A spokeswoman for the city's Department of Health said there were no more confirmed cases of swine flu. The decision to close the schools, she said, was due to increasing levels of flu-like illness.
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