GLOBAL: Spanish flu remedy kills swine flu virus

To overcome the shortage of Tamiflu - the World Health Organization's drug of choice for treating people infected with the H1N1swine flu virus - and the controversial swine flu vaccine, Chinese and Egyptian scientists have turned to a herbal remedy used to combat the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

They have discovered the roots of a plant commonly called "devil's dung" for its foul smell contain substances with powerful effects in killing the H1N1 swine flu virus in laboratory tests.

Lead researcher Yang-Chang Wu, from the Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan, and colleagues identified a group of chemical compounds, sesquiterpene coumarins, in extracts of the devil's dung plant that showed strong antiviral properties against the H1N1 swine flu virus in test tubes.

The devil's dung plant, Ferula assa-foetida, grows and is used in folk medicine in Mediterranean and central Asian countries, particularly Iran, Afghanistan and mainland China.

Morad Ahmed Morad, a professor of medicine at Tanta University in Egypt, welcomed the development: "instead of waiting for the partially empty promises of drug donation made by several of the world's richest nations, this successful south-south scientific cooperation is the right way to face the current demand."

"Although the "devil's dung" compounds still need to be tested against swine flu in lab animals and people, the present discovery could lead to a cheap anti-swine flu drug and economically benefit small-scale farmers as well as enhancing science-based business in developing countries," Morad said.

"This could be done by developing and producing traditional herbal tea bags containing roots of this plant to be used in tackling swine flu in poor communities who cannot access or afford to pay for flu drug Tamiflu, which is already in short supply and some cases of swine flu virus resistant to that drug have started to appear,"

Zakaria El-baltagy, a chest specialist at chest diseases hospital el-mahala El-kobra in Egypt, suggested the creation of a gene bank to protect the plant. He said the researchers should patent the discovery before a Western company gained it, as happened with Tamiflu. The drug is made in part from the fruits of the Chinese star anise tree, Illicium verum. US-based Gilead Sciences is the patent holder and licensed it to Swiss drugmaker Roche.

The research was published recently in the Journal of Natural Products.