Inoculate your business against bird flu

Companies in Asia discuss some measures they are taking to minimize the impact of the deadly flu virus, should the situation become critical.

Tech companies in Asia are bracing themselves for the possibility of an avian flu pandemic as the human death toll rises around the world.

Still haunted by the damage inflicted by the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus, which struck the region from 2002 to 2003, companies that ZDNet Asia contacted said they have drawn up business continuity plans and measures to protect staff in case the virus reaches critical level.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of Mar. 8, 2006, there are 175 confirmed cases of people infected with the H5N1 avian flu virus. A nine-year-old girl from the southeast coastal province of Zhejiang was China's 10th human fatality Wednesday, bringing the total worldwide death toll to 96.

Tony Friscia of AMR Research last month warned in a supply chain-related e-mail alert that in the event of an outbreak, companies need to be "ready with a plan that can be executed immediately to mitigate risk". In the report, he estimated that a pandemic's economic impact on the United States alone could exceed US$100 billion.

To mitigate the impact of such possible virus outbreak, companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Symantec detail business continuity procedures that are already in place.

Tan Lee Chew, managing director of Hewlett-Packard Southeast Asia, told ZDNet Asia that the company has had a crisis management team process in place "for several years". HP has more than 40,000 employees located across the Asia-Pacific region.

"Last year, we underwent a contingency planning exercise around extreme risks that could disrupt the business, focusing specifically on avian influenza pandemic scenarios," Tan said.

HP's contingency planning has both workplace and business operational measures. Operational measures include remote and flexible work arrangements, increased remote or telecommuting options, while workplace measures involve employee screening, isolation, and containment of potentially affected employees, followed by facility cleaning, said Tan.

Some of the company's employees are in direct contact with WHO, as well as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We also regularly update the health advisory notices on our intranet with the latest status and guidance," Tan added. "This avian flu alert has been posted and updated since the first [cases appeared] in Vietnam in 2004."

Security vendor Symantec is also acutely aware of the importance of having a business continuity plan, especially since it became a provider of storage backup software after its purchase of Veritas Software. Symantec has more than 2,800 staff in the Asia-Pacific region.

Edward Lim, general manager of Symantec Singapore, said lost data that is irrecoverable can cause tremendous losses in cost, damaged reputation, audit liability and employee dissatisfaction.

"It is extremely critical for any organization to have a business continuity plan," he said. "In our organization, vital records, are protected, and then made available for a complete recovery."

Symantec's "vital records" include disaster recovery plans, programs, data and procedures needed to resume IT operations, as well as customer contracts, business operations procedures, human resources documentation and legal documents.

An office away from disaster
Access infrastructure solutions provider Citrix Systems, which employs more than 300 staff in the region, has a comprehensive business continuity plan to fall back on in case of a potential disaster.

Yak Malik, area vice president at Citrix Asean, told ZDNet Asia: "We provide business continuity solutions for our customers, and at the same time, we practise what we preach."

"Basically, Citrix’s business continuity plan is, if you can't come to your office, your office can come to you," he quipped.

Citrix supplies a remote access product that incorporates a Web-based access interface, which enables users to access business applications hosted on a server farm. The applications can be load-balanced across multiple data centers, and users can access them through a Web browser from anywhere through a secure Internet connection, Malik explained.

Singapore-based Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) is also keeping a lookout for a potential avian flu outbreak.

According to Gilbert Khonke, OCBC's head of group risk management group, the bank has implemented a plan based on the country's Ministry of Health's Disease Outbreak Response System (DORS) alert levels.

This includes developing various strategies for addressing the impact of reduced staffing levels at each alert phase, Khonke said.

"Our focus is driven by the need to protect the health and welfare of our staff and customers, and to ensure continuity in services to our customers," he explained.

Besides setting up an internal Web site to update staff on avian flu issues as well as advice from the Ministry of Health, he added that OCBC has made provisions for some of its staff to work from home.

In fact, global human resource services company Mercer Human Resource Consulting has also launched a dedicated Web site to provide companies with planning information and advice to address the challenges of a potential global flu pandemic.

According to a press statement, the initiative was developed in response to growing concerns from the company's client as the avian flu outbreak spread from Asia to key commercial centers in Europe. Mercer has 2,000 employees based in the Asia-Pacific region.

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