Star anise, a common spice used in Chinese cooking that can be found on in the Asian section of many grocery stores, is the main ingredient in Tamiflu, which so far is the only antidote to the symptoms of bird flu.

Jeremy Laurance writes in the Independent that star anise is a source of shikimic acid, which is the main ingredient in Tamiflu. Tamiflu is, so far, the world’s only defense against a possible avian flu epidemic. Even though millions of doses are being stockpiled all over the world, the Roche drug company, which holds the patent to Tamiflu, can’t manufacture enough of it quickly enough to make sure that everyone infected with bird flu will be able to take it. Some countries have demanded that Roche, in light of the impending health emergency, be willing to release its patent and allow other drug companies to produce generic versions of Tamiflu.

Tamiflu doesn’t prevent you from getting the flu (only a vaccine can do that) and scientists are working desperately to create a bird flu vaccine. But it can reduce the severity of the disease. Since bird flu produces pneumonia symptoms, which can be deadly in weak, elderly and immune-compromised individuals, this may be of major importance. A shortage of star anise is the main reason that countries can stockpile as much Tamiflu as they would like to.

Star anise is only grown in four provinces in China, and the Roche drug company useds 90% of it. If it was grown in other parts of the world, would it be as effective? Star Anise could probably be grown in the US. Texas weather, for instance, is very much like that found in large portions of China, and the agricultural land there could be converted to star anise production, although this would result in some food shortages. However, with planning, unused farmland in the Northeast could be put to use for food production again. One of the main tasks to be done to prepare for the inevitable global warming will be to find new places to grow food.

In the upcoming months, when worry about a bird flu pandemic is at its height, you will hear many people telling you to eat Chinese food, but that won’t prevent your getting bird flu. The best way we know right now to avoid the flu is to wash your hands often, especially after coming inside from running errands, being in public places, etc.

This may all be in vain, however, since the avian flu virus is evolving to become resistant to Tamiflu.

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