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Cooking spice key player in bird flu battle
Updated: 2005-11-01 07:26

With the spread of bird flu prompting fears of an epidemic or even pandemic that could kill humans by the million, a Chinese spice hitherto associated with the pleasures of aperitifs has suddenly assumed key medical significance.

Cooking spice key player in bird flu battle
The Star Anise, a rare herb grown in China used to flavour duck dishes and treat infants for colic, on sale together with other spices at a market in Nanning, South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region October 25, 2005. [AFP]
For the fruit known as star anise has an ingredient vital to a drug to fight the strain of avian flu that has already killed more than 60 people in Asia.

Harvested in China and Vietnam and used as a spice, it provides flavouring for candies, pastis drinks and tobacco.

But it also has a key pharmaceutical asset - shikimic acid, described by experts as the world's only weapon against bird flu.

Star anise, the dried, star-shaped multiple fruit of a small oriental tree which is a member of the magnolia family, is a traditional ingredient of oriental cuisine with its pungent, liquorice-like flavour.

It also serves as the main flavouring of the liqueurs Pernod and Anisette.

But its medical significance had already been noted before bird flu arrived, including potential cancer-fighting properties.

Now it has sprung to new prominence as a chief source of shikimic acid, a vital ingredient of Tamiflu, one of the rare anti-viral drugs that has proved effective against the lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu which has infected 118 people in Asia since late 2003 and killed more than 60 people.

"From this one plant you can make both a drink -- pastis -- and a pharmaceutical product, Tamiflu," said Albert Elgrissy, communications director for the pastis maker Ricard in Marseille.

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