“Ni hao! San Bei Ji. Please.”
My friendly labmate at Purdue University taught me only enough Mandarin to pick up my Chinese order. At noon each weekday, hundreds of Chinese-speaking students came to a campus enclave to pick up their lunch from one of four local restaurants’ minivans. I was impressed with the value—five dollars for a styrofoam container with chock-full compartments of steamed spicy cabbage topped with half of a hard-boiled egg, white rice, and a main entree, plus a pint of seaweed soup. The taste was unique too: the chefs were not cooking for Americans, so they used authentic spices and the bones were left in the meats.
My favorite dish, literally “three cup chicken,” was flavored with ginger, garlic, and basil. The other dishes were sprinkled with “five spice,” which is cloves, cinnamon, pepper, fennel seeds, and Chinese star anise (picture above). When the bird flu was at its height in 2005, the price for Chinese star anise shot up ten-fold in some markets.1 Drug maker Roche bought tons of shikimic acid, which is most cost-effectively extracted from the dried seedpods of star anise, to make Tamiflu. At the same time, Chinese people wanted the spice for its healing powers against the bird flu and other ailments.2
In response, Roche diversified its source of shikimic acid. By 2006, they made 30% of their supply by an E. coli fermentation process.3 Now there are also dozens of competitors making oseltamivir,1 so we may have lower risk of a shortage in the future. Even still, Roche’s start-to-finish time for Tamiflu synthesis is six to eight months,1 and this lag time could mean death for waiting patients in the next flu pandemic.
I wonder if the Chinese restaurateurs at Purdue charged extra that year?
1. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/05/business/is-bird-flu-drug-really-so-vexing-debating-the-difficulty-of.html (Accessed Jan. 31, 2017)
2. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/11/1128_051128_star_anise.html (Accessed Jan. 31, 2017)
3. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/17/AR2005111701855.html (Accessed Jan. 31, 2017)
Feature image credit: thevintaquarian.com
Chemical structure image: Author’s own. Made using ChemDraw.