When Mutual of Omaha Insurance Co. was in the early stages of planning its 2007 incentive trip, China was high on the list of possible destinations. But, with increasing publicity about the possibility of an avian flu outbreak, the planners eventually ruled it out.

“The cost, distance, and desirability of the destination were all factors,” says spokesman Jim Nolan. “And so was the flu.”

As Mutual of Omaha's decision suggests — and if a recent avian flu summit at the Minneapolis Convention Center is any indication — the corporate world has finally spotted H5N1 on its radar screen.

Slow at the Start

Although U.S. companies may be waking up to the threat, they lag far behind their counterparts in other countries in contingency planning. In March, Mercer Human Resource Consulting, New York, conducted a survey of 450 companies around the world to measure the extent of their corporate preparedness programs. Only 17 percent of respondents had a budget for pandemic planning. In the United States, that shrank to just 7 percent. Seventy percent of respondents believe a pandemic will have a negative effect on profits, yet just 38 percent of American companies in the survey have formed crisis-management teams.

Things may be changing. Representatives from more than 200 companies attended the recent “Business Planning for Pandemic Influenza,” organized by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and held at the Minneapolis Convention Center. “A two-day conference in February in Minnesota … to get that kind of attendance testifies to the importance of the issue,” says Aaron Desmond, who, as CIDRAP's coordinator for licensing and new business development, planned the event. Yet even among a group of businesses motivated to pay the $1,800 per-attendee registration fee, a survey taken at the summit found that just 18 percent of respondents had a preparedness plan.

Companies that were affected by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2003 appear to have taken the lead when it comes to planning. Microbix Biosystems Inc. of Toronto, like other companies based there, experienced firsthand the disruption a possible pandemic can have on business operations. A virology company that manufactures biotherapeutic drugs and vaccines, Microbix has been tracking the avian flu since it was first identified in 1997. According to general manager Phil Casselli, Microbix began considering a corporate preparedness plan in 2004, “put some teeth into it during 2005,” and published it in skeletal form on its Web site for corporate and individual consumers in late 2005.

“There's no motivation for us not to share it,” Casselli says. “Our philosophy is that everything we manufacture, we export. If borders are shut because of a pandemic, we can't ship, so there is a high likelihood we would have to shut down for a long period of time.”

Impact on Travel and Meetings

Intel Corp., a multinational company based in Santa Clara, Calif., with about 100,000 employees in more than 50 countries, also saw up close how the threat of a pandemic can affect corporate travel and meetings. In April 2003, during the height of the SARS scare, it was forced to cancel developer events in Beijing and Taipei. During that period, the company also canceled a scheduled trip by CEO Craig Barrett to the region.

“SARS was really a wake-up call for us about the potential impact [a pandemic] can have,” says Gary Niekerk, manager of corporate responsibility. Intel formed a 12-member committee that has developed a plan to deal with an avian flu outbreak. It includes representatives from all sectors of the company, including corporate travel.

As it did with the SARS crisis three years ago, the company is ready to clamp down on travel to impact areas. And, as it did in 2003, Intel intends to minimize risks by substituting videoconferencing for face-to-face meetings. “As a technology company, we'll be using technological solutions as much as possible,” Niekerk says.

For example, one step Intel is taking is to review its remote information technology to ensure that Intel employees, if necessary, can telecommute efficiently and productively. The company's intranet will be used to communicate directly with employees to provide them with updates as well as contact numbers they can use.

One thing in Intel's favor is that it works with a travel vendor that closely tracks business travel. In the case of an outbreak, it will be possible to see who is traveling in, or about to travel to, an impact area, and to either cancel that trip or intercept the traveler before he or she is able to return to an Intel office.

“One problem is that not everyone goes through our preferred travel vendor,” Niekerk says. “About 5 percent book on their own, which will make it more difficult in an emergency.”

Worst-Case Scenarios

As of June 6, 225 confirmed human avian flu cases had been reported to the World Health Organization, of which 128 were fatal. Scientists believe those numbers have probably been underreported.

The vast majority of those cases were in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, seven members in a family of eight were killed by the virus without any recorded contact with infected poultry, raising concerns that the risk of human-to-human transmission of the virus is already here.

If, and when, the virus starts to transmit from person to person, a full-blown pandemic could come quickly. Microbix's Casselli, for example, believes that once an area experiences its first cases of human-to-human avian flu transmission, a full regional breakout could be just days away, which brings up the most difficult scenario that could face a company in a pandemic: What happens if that company has huge numbers of employees in an area that is quickly becoming hot?

For Microbix, the risks are lower because its employees are not frequent travelers. “But take a company like General Motors,” Casselli says. “They could have a couple of thousand people at the far end of an airline flight. What do they do?”

According to Casselli, Microbix will not send its executives into hot areas unless it's absolutely necessary, and at that point, “if they have to go, they would not travel without personal protective equipment.”

Protective equipment could include respiratory face masks, protective gloves, and even antiviral drugs. The Wall Street Journal has reported that 3M Corp. of St. Paul, Minn., is arming its traveling executives with Tamiflu, a drug that reduces the severity of regular flu and that may be effective against avian flu; other companies, such as Virgin Atlantic Airways, also have plans to provide Tamiflu to their employees.

Reports such as this confirm that more companies are starting to worry about avian flu — but how that will affect the rate of contingency planning is yet to be seen.

“Organizations are becoming more cautious about planning events in hot-spot countries, not because they see an immediate risk, but because it's easier not to have to explain the risks,” says Tim Daniel, CEO of International SOS, a Philadelphia-based provider of medical assistance and international health care to companies around the world. “If the choice for a meeting is between China, Thailand, and Singapore, you may make a decision simply based on the latest headlines on bird flu.”

Avian Flu Sparks a New Meeting

In November 2005, officials at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, realizing that the federal government was not going to be able to provide a full response to an avian flu epidemic, decided to take matters into their own hands.

“There wasn't a lot of planning going on within the business sector, and there wasn't a lot of guidance coming from the government,” says Aaron Desmond, CIDRAP's coordinator for licensing and new business development. The center first organized a small panel to look at the issue locally during a forum in December 2005. Based on that, CIDRAP “saw the importance of taking the meeting national,” Desmond says. Because of the critical nature of the issue and the feeling that time was of the essence, Desmond was given only eight weeks to plan and implement the “Business Planning for Pandemic Influenza” forum held at the Minneapolis Convention Center in February.

“It was kind of an unknown” who the logical attendees of such a conference would be, says Desmond, so CIDRAP marketed it for senior decision-makers across all functional areas within a corporation. “That's pretty much who showed up. The heads of HR, risk management, IT, CEOs — they really came from all different areas.”

In the end, 200 companies were represented, including 40 percent of the Fortune 500 companies.

With no sign that the avian flu threat will abate, it's likely that the meeting will be held again next year. “There's a lot of demand for ongoing education and networking on business preparedness,” Desmond says. “And we're committed to the private sector to continue working on this issue.”

For more information, check out CIDRAP's Web site at www.cidrap.umn.edu.

Phase 6: Crisis Management

The World Health Organization uses a six-phase Pandemic Alert Protocol. Right now, according to WHO, the world is at Phase 3, which is characterized by the presence of an avian flu virus in humans, but with no known human-to-human transmission. If there is an “increased and sustained” spread of the virus throughout the general population, then we will have reached Phase 6. At that point, companies will be implementing travel restrictions and scrambling to get employees home or to get them medical care.

International SOS, a Philadelphia-based provider of medical assistance and international health care to companies around the world, has posted a comprehensive sample business continuity plan on its Web site. The company provides preparedness consulting and has helped a number of corporations to create avian flu preparedness plans.

“We are getting lots of inquiries,” reports CEO Tim Daniel. “‘Will you still be able to do evacuations?’ ‘Will clinics remain open?’”

The technical capabilities of caring for clients or performing medical evacuations “will still be there,” Daniel says. “We've honed those skills ever since SARS.”

But logistics and governmental restrictions in case of an outbreak could make things sticky. According to Daniel, SARS made national authorities more aware of how travel can exacerbate an infectious disease epidemic. “If you get sick in a place like China or Indonesia, you may need to stay there,” Daniel says.

10 Steps
Toward Corporate Preparedness

  1. Provide training to employees.

  2. Enhance telecommunications capacity (which means upgrading IT infrastructures).

  3. Be ready to increase or substitute conference calls or videoconferences for face-to-face meetings.

  4. Monitor travel advisory sites, such as those of the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and issue travel warnings.

  5. Ban or restrict travel and meetings in hot-spot areas.

  6. Prepare for the possibility of employee quarantine after travel.

  7. Issue travel kits containing protective equipment such as masks and gloves to travelers.

  8. Provide traveling employees with antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu.

  9. Have a travel management system that closely tracks employee travel.

  10. Have an agreement in place with an emergency medical services company.