Avian Flu's Wake-Up Call to Business

Companies aren't making adequate preparations to deal with a possible pandemic, says the Bush Administration's point man on the issue

The business community is "not adequately prepared" for a possible avian flu pandemic, says Secretary of Health & Human Services Michael Leavitt. The Bush Administration's point person on this issue, Leavitt recently discussed the corporate community's slow response to a possible pandemic -- an outbreak of disease that occurs over a wide geographic area that affects a large proportion of the population -- with BusinessWeek Washington Outlook editor Richard S. Dunham. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

How serious a threat does business face from the avian flu?

The threat of a pandemic is real. They happen. They've happened for centuries. And there's no reason to believe they won't happen in the future.

Measuring the size of the threat is a difficult equation. But recognizing that it's there is the first step. We've had three pandemics in the last century -- 1918, 1957, and 1968. They ranged in size from events that basically allow society to go forward in a relatively normal way to events that disrupted society generally, such as in 1918.

The reason that this is a topic of conversation now is that scientists are concerned by the H5N1 virus [which causes the avian flu]. There are troubling signs that it is moving toward a pandemic-like condition. There is no certainty that that is the case, but it is enough of a possibility -- and the disruption is potentially high enough -- that it demands our attention.

How well prepared is the business community now and what should business be doing to prepare?

The business community, like the rest of society, is not adequately prepared. The first step in preparation is to understand the nature of the disruption. We have looked at the past three pandemics.

The percentage of the population that was affected runs between 20% and 30%, and roughly 10% to 20% of workers were affected for periods that ranged from two to four weeks. Business can begin to factor those [data] into their own operations to determine the level of disruption that would be created.

We now have tools that weren't available during any of the last three pandemics [that could help mitigate disruption]: the capacity to work online is one. During Katrina, substantial numbers of businesses were able to continue operation, and several hundred thousand employees were able to maintain employment because of their capacity to work online.

How should companies plan? What kinds of things should be on companies' radar screens in case the worst occurs?

The Centers for Disease Control is putting together material that would assist a business in being able to make an assessment of its own operations. We are encouraging employers to have plans on how they can protect their employees, on how they would cope with a reduced workforce, the way they would ensure continued operations, how they would ensure communications with their employees and customers.

Do you have a template for businesses to follow or a list of top concerns that businesses should take into account when making plans?

We are developing a template and expect to have it fairly quickly. We will also be providing state and local health agencies with information. Every business will be affected in a different way, and the only way they can plan is to sit down and do a risk-management assessment on their own operations.

Do you foresee any kind of government mandates on business or guidelines for action?

I do not. I expect that we will do all we can to provide information to people, and they will apply that information in a way that is consistent with their own needs.

What role do you see for the government to help prod the business community to develop business continuation plans?

Our job is to inform but not inflame, to inspire preparation but not panic. Our planning ought to be not just for the H5N1, it ought to be thinking about [the need for plans] in general. Because if it's not H5N1, it'll be another [virus]. And it may not be this year or next, but at some point in the future, it'll occur.

Businesses need to be factoring that pandemic and other medical-type disasters into place. The same factors could occur in a bioterrorism event, or it could be a nuclear event. All of them could produce essentially the same type conditions. So part of emergency planning is thinking through how to cope with medial emergencies.

Some big companies may have already thought through the possibility of bioterrorism or nuclear attack, so they may already have their own template to start with.

That's right. And they'll find them highly adaptable.

Yet some businesses felt burned by all the talk of a Y2K bug. Do you fear that this could be another Y2K? What good could come of it, even if there is no pandemic in the next year or two?

I would expect that if the H5N1 virus does not achieve pandemic status that some will look back and say we overreacted. Some may say, "Oh, they were crying wolf." That's why it's important to point out that our plan is not about the H5N1 virus, it's about pandemic readiness.

There is a gaping hole right now in our security system, and it is our preparation for medical emergencies.

In practical terms, how will government planning for a flu pandemic help businesses?

When we are complete with this plan, the world will be different. First, we will have cell-based technology that will allow the development of vaccines in a rapid way. That will change the world and will ultimately save the lives of millions.

Second, we will have the ability to vaccinate more people for the annual flu. That will have a substantial benefit to business immediately, because [the annual flu] causes absenteeism, creates more than 200,000 hospitalizations a year, and takes the lives of some 36,000 people.

How else will it help?

The third is, we will have better prepared both state and local governments for whatever the medical emergency is -- bioterrorism, nuclear event, pandemic, or major natural disaster. We will be better prepared as a society. Fourth, we will have an international network of surveillance for disease that does not currently exist.

And lastly, we will have the peace of mind to know that we're ready. All five of those change the world in a positive way. With or without the H5N1 achieving pandemic status, we're doing the right thing.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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