Bird Flu Drug Tamiflu's Primary Ingredient Washed Out in Mudslides

Atlanta, April 22, 2009 -- With bird flu, also known as avian flu, now confirmed to have mutated into a form that can be transmitted human-to-human, international disease control agencies are concerned by a new report that virtually all of this year's star anise crop, a vital component of Tamiflu grown only in four provinces of China, has been wiped out in a series of mudslides brought on by unseasonably strong tropical storms in the region.

Tamiflu, the antiviral medication produced by Roche of Switzerland and one of the few treatments available for those who have already contracted bird flu, requires star anise, specifically Shikimic acid, a star anise derivative, as a primary ingredient.

"We're a little concerned, to say the least," said Dr. Catherine Laqueur, Deputy Chief of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "H5N1 bird flu has now clearly mutated, precisely as we've feared could happen for the past several years, and is now in a virulent, highly contagious airborne form that can be passed from human to human. To treat incidences of bird flu while work on vaccine production is underway, countries worldwide are going to require enormous stocks of Tamiflu, well beyond any stockpiles they may currently have. Having the sole source of star anise wiped out in a single act of nature is more than a little disconcerting."

The bird flu drug Tamiflu's primary component, star anise, is grown only in four provinces of China. A series of torrential downpours this month led to mudslides throughout the region, decimating the season's entire crop. Environmentalists blame the unusually heavy rains on widespread deforestation of the region, exacerbated by increasingly heavy, short-term downpours precipitated by a dramatic increase in the earth's temperature due to global warming.

A spokesman for Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical company that holds the patent for Tamiflu and which began licensing production of the drug to a number of other major pharmaceutical manufacturers around the world in late 2005 as fears of a bird flu outbreak engaged the international consciousness, said the company has attempted to produce the drug using a synthetically derived version of Shikimic acid, but found in clinical trials that the synthetic version has only limited effectiveness.

"It can slow the course of bird flu, or avian flu, to some extent in healthy people, but for children or the elderly we've found it virtually useless, I'm afraid. We need the original, organically derived version of Shikimic for the drug to be fully effective," said the spokesman.

Star anise is the fruit of a small tree, the Star Anise Tree, which generally grows up to about eight feet high. It requires continually moist soil to survive.

"The turbulent weather we've been having lately has been positively catastrophic for the Star Anise," said Peter Bergeron, a plant biologist with the University of California, Berkeley. "Star Anise requires a temperate growing climate featuring regular, but small, infusions of water into the soil. The kinds of unusual tropical rainfall this region of China has experienced over the past several years, coupled with the decimation of the region's forests due to excessive logging, have left the topsoil completely exposed and, in many areas, washed away. That has depleted the soil's potential for water retention, drying out the roots of the Star Anise trees and severely affecting their health. On top of that, later storms have turned the loosened soil cap into a gigantic mud bath that has rolled down the unprotected hills and buried most of the surviving trees. The Star Anise, as a viable species, is effectively extinct right now."

The catastrophe, which may have profound implications on the international community's ability to cope with what many now agree is a full-scale bird flu pandemic, has prompted a widespread international "oops".

"Apparently, what we have as perpetrators here are denial of global warming's impact, unrestricted exploitation of lands, and a lack of preparedness—in other words, business as usual," said Stephen Clover of the CDC. "With another 24 months at least until we have an effective vaccine against the current strains of bird flu, and only enough antiviral supplies to help treat about 5% of the population, I think, in hindsight, a few people are going to be questioning some of our policies with regard to how we treat this planet."

Roughly five million people worldwide are now believed to be infected with bird flu. Despite containment efforts, including the imposition of martial law in many areas, that number is growing by between 50,000 and 100,000 per day. The survival rate for the current strain is approximately 34 percent.

By Ion Zwitter, Avant News Editor

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