Hong Kong — HONG KONG — A popular herb called ban lan gen, or blue root, has been flying off pharmacy shelves across China as local governments encourage people to consider traditional remedies to ward off the latest bird flu virus.
With scientists so far unable to pinpoint the H7N9 influenza virus' animal host, locals are preparing for a possible pandemic by stocking up on popular plant remedies as well as face masks and hand sanitizers and other over-the- counter medicines.
"Chinese people associate ban lan gen with anti-virus," said Shen Jiangang, assistant director for research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's School of Chinese Medicine. "So when they hear about bird flu, they immediately think it might be effective to protect themselves although there is no experimental evidence."
Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines have used the remedy for centuries. Scientists have proved it can relieve bacterial conjunctivitis in eye drops and found it has an antiviral effect in test tubes. There is no test to show it works against influenza.
That hasn't stopped buyers. Chinese consumers, especially older ones, tend to believe in traditional formulations especially when it comes to cold and flu remedies, said Iwona Mamczur, an analyst at Mintel International Group Ltd. The market for over-the-counter medicines was worth 77.5 billion yuan ($12.5 billion) in 2011, according to a report from the London-based researcher.
Ban lan gen is the root of a flowering plant known as dyer's woad or indigo woad, and found in southeastern Europe, central Asia and eastern Siberia. The roots are dried and often processed into granules, which consumers ingest dissolved in hot water or tea. According to traditional Chinese medicine, which seeks to balance heat and cold in the body, the root can help clear the heat triggered by a viral attack, Shen said.
Patients should take the remedy under the guidance of a trained health practitioner, said Albert Leung, who heads Hong Kong University's School of Chinese Medicine.
Huashi Pharmacy, located in Shanghai near the eastern bank of the Huangpu river, has started replenishing supplies of ban lan gen daily instead of weekly and still struggles to meet demand, according to pharmacy worker Zhang Zhijin.
Sales of facial masks have also gone up 10 times from before the H7N9 infections announcements, hand sanitizer has sold out, and companies have been bulk-ordering alcohol wipes for their employees, Zhang said.
Beijing Tongrentang, which makes a product extracted from ban lan gen, said in an e-mail that the outbreak of H7N9 has boosted sales, but didn't provide numbers. The company's shares increased 1.9 percent to a two-week high of 22.20 yuan at the close of trading in Shanghai Wednesday.
Francis Chu, the Singapore-based inventor of the totobobo face mask, said he's fielded more than 20 inquiries about the pollution-filtering equipment's effectiveness against bird flu since the start of April. Sales are up eight-fold from the same period last year.
"Earlier in the year, most of the increased orders from China were because of the air pollution," Chu said in a telephone interview. "Sales are still increasing, but now it's because of worries about bird flu."
Beyond anecdotal evidence, the surge is hard to quantify. Pharmaceutical companies reaped at least $10 billion in sales of vaccines and antivirals globally as a result of the 2009 swine flu outbreak, according to data compiled by Bloomberg at the time. It's too early to tell whether H7N9 will touch off another pandemic.
Chinese authorities are struggling to identify the source and mode of transmission of the virus, which has sickened 79 people and killed 16 so far, most of them in China's eastern provinces. While there is no evidence that H7N9 is spreading easily among people, it hasn't been detected in humans before, so they have no natural immunity. That raises public health concerns, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said last week.
Sinovac Biotech Ltd., the first company to win regulatory approval for a swine flu shot in 2009, surged 6.8 percent to $4.11 in Nasdaq trading on April 15 after Chief Executive Officer Yin Weidong said in an interview it is preparing to make immunizations against the new virus. Beijing-base Sinovac could have a first batch of the vaccine ready for commercial use by late July in the event of a pandemic, according to Yin.
Until such a vaccine is found, the race is on for Chinese citizens to track down the ban lan gen herb.
Zheng Bing, who works as an assistant at a local private equity firm, recently walked away empty-handed from three separate pharmacies in Beijing's financial district. Zheng was told by his boss to stock up on the herb for the entire office. But he found that other anxious residents had beat him to the punch.
"I'm going to try a few more shops," he said. "Otherwise I can't answer my boss."