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O Tamiflu: Turning Christmas trees into flu drug

Needles contain high concentration of key ingredient

By Marsha Walton
CNN

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Brigitte Kiecken: "On a personal level, I'm scared; on a professional level, I'm terribly frustrated."

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine offers tips on how to deal with avian flu:

  • Stay informed: Don't just read the headline, read the entire article. Pay attention as the media provide information.
  • Stay healthy: Get in the best possible shape. You'll do much better in managing the flu.
  • Get surgical masks: They are used in Southeast Asia when people have respiratory infections. They are inexpensive and don't have any adverse effects.
  • Don't try to stockpile Tamiflu: Some people will use it inappropriately. When that happens, it's a prescription for creating a resistant flu virus.

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    ST. CATHARINES, Ontario (CNN) -- After the holiday is over, some Christmas trees end up in landfills, others get a second gig as garden mulch.

    But soon thousands may end up as part of a lifesaving drug.

    The needles of pine, spruce and fir trees contain a fairly high concentration of shikimic acid, the main ingredient in Tamiflu. Countries all over the world are stockpiling the drug in anticipation of a bird flu pandemic.

    Most shikimic acid is obtained from star anise, a cooking spice from a tree grown in China. Prices of the spice skyrocketed when anxiety over a the possibility of a human outbreak of avian flu escalated.

    A small Canadian company, Biolyse Pharma Corp., is now processing thousands of discarded trees to retrieve the acid.

    "It's an urgent matter, and we should be starting production -- not once the pandemic hits, but before that," said chemist Brigitte Kiecken, Biolyse's CEO.

    The World Health Organization has confirmed nine cases of bird flu in China, six of them fatal, and advises people living in areas affected by bird flu to avoid contact with any birds, their feathers, feces or other waste.

    Worldwide, the organization has confirmed 149 cases, 80 of them fatal and most of them in Asia. Turkish officials say they have confirmed around 20 cases in their country.

    Biolyse has experience in creating drugs from plants. It produces paclitaxel, a drug taken by breast and lung cancer patients that is made from the needles of the Canadian yew bush.

    Another Canadian company, Gro-Bark, is processing thousands of discarded trees and donating the needles to Biolyse. Gro-Bark workers usually chip trees and yard waste for sale as mulch and potting soil.

    "It's interesting for us, different from the normal routine," said Jim Peterson of Gro-Bark. "We'll see where it leads us in the future; it could be something that could make a big difference for everyone."

    But the global aspects of patents, pharmaceuticals and public health make the planning for a flu pandemic enormously complicated, whether it is surveillance, diagnosis or drug distribution.

    Without preparation, "it will certainly be chaotic later," said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert.

    "People are sorting out things such as property rights and availability and transport of drugs across countries' lines," said Schaffner, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine and professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee.

    "There are concerns that when you have an emergency, if it's made in this country or any other, it will stay in this country -- we're not going to share. So people are trying to work out contingency plans to make sure there's a more equitable distribution."

    The Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche holds the patent on Tamiflu. Biolyse is negotiating sales of shikimic acid, not the drug, to developing countries not covered by the Roche patent.

    Biolyse's Kiecken said she believes more needs to be done.

    "On a personal level, I'm scared, and on a professional level, I'm terribly frustrated," she said.

    "Government and industry have to work together now. We've been warned for ample time, and it [a pandemic] is bound to happen."

    Recent human deaths from bird flu outside East Asia, in Turkey, seem to have increased attention and preparations for a flu pandemic.

    The European Union announced Wednesday it will add $20 million to the $100 million it pledged to fight bird flu. At a 80-country conference in Beijing, China, donors pledged $1.9 billion to try to stave off a pandemic.

    start quoteI was absolutely entranced that there's a small company in Canada making this shikimic acid out of Christmas trees. I was ready to donate our own.end quote
    -- Vanderbilt University infectious disease expert Dr. William Schaffner

    And Roche announced it is donating an additional 20 million doses of Tamiflu, enough for 2 million people, to the WHO. Those doses of the antiviral drug will be stored regionally, in developing countries determined by the WHO. Since 2004, Roche has donated enough Tamiflu to treat about 5.1 million people.

    Vanderbilt's Schaffner said education, preparation and action at every level can help.

    "I was absolutely entranced that there's a small company in Canada making this shikimic acid out of Christmas trees. I was ready to donate our own," he said. "That is something the company will have to work out, to see if their product will find a channel into the manufacture of Tamiflu, and I wish them very well."

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