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[CAIRO] Excitement about a potential herbal remedy for swine flu — influenza A(H1N1) — may be unfounded, according to an expert in pandemic preparedness.

There was wide publicity last month for the discovery that compounds in the roots of the plant Ferula assa-foetida — used during the 1918 flu pandemic — have "potent" activity against A(H1N1) viruses in laboratory tests and could be a cheap, traditional way of tackling infection.

But George Avery, of Purdue University in the United States, says the time needed to demonstrate effectiveness, along with proving its safety, rules it out as a treatment for this outbreak.

"It is a promising discovery but a long way from demonstration as a viable product, much less for widespread use," he says. "I would use great caution in attributing significance to this finding at present," he told SciDev.Net.

He says the antiviral effect has been shown only in the laboratory, not in more complex animal models. "Nor is there evidence to show that they are of low enough toxicity to produce less harm than they prevent," he says.

The plant, commonly called devil's dung because of its foul smell, grows in central Asia, mainly in Afghanistan, China and Iran. It has been used for centuries in folk medicine for various illnesses including influenza — and has a number of present-day supporters.

The lead researcher on the F. assa-foetida research, Yang-Chang Wu at Kaohsiung Medical University, Taiwan, says: "The discovery may not only cure and/or prevent A(H1N1) flu, but also lead to new drug development against H1N1 viruses".

"I think it's a wonderful discovery," says Shahana Urooj Kazmi, dean of the University of Karachi's faculty of science, Pakistan. "This medicinal plant extract is already in use for other ailments. I would expect that it should be a good source of an anti-A(H1N1) flu control medicine if found safe in clinical trials."

Meanwhile, Ali Karami, molecular biologist at Baqiyatallah Medical Sciences University, Iran, suggests setting up a regional research plan to evaluate the potential of the plant for drug development.

The research was published online in the Journal of Natural Products on 19 August.

Link to abstract in the Journal of Natural Products