msnbc.com news services
updated 11/17/2005 10:55:26 AM ET 2005-11-17T15:55:26

Multinational companies in a variety of industries around the world are bracing for a possible outbreak of bird flu in humans according to a report in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal.

Drawing on their experiences with severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, a lethal and fast-moving virus that shut national borders and some corporate offices in Asia for months in 2003, many companies are moving to safeguard operations, protect far-flung staff, and map alternate work sites in case of a quarantine the Journal reported.

News that humans in China have now become infected with human bird flu has given companies’ preparations a greater urgency the paper said. Of China’s two confirmed cases, a poultry worker has died and a 9-year-old boy has fallen ill. Bird flu has infected 126 people in Asia since 2003, killing 64 of them according to the newspaper.

The toll from a pandemic could be severe according to a World Health Organization flu expert quoted by the Journal, costing businesses as much as $60 billion. The World Bank has forecast that economic losses from a bird-flu pandemic could reach $800 billion.

The Journal says Microsoft Corp. is set to roll out its bird flu plan next month. It includes widening access to its virtual private network — the electronic system of online access from home — that will allow its 30,000 workers in Redmond and 7,000 in Asia to telecommute in large numbers.

The software company also will provide preventive education for its 63,000 workers world-wide, and distribute hand sanitizers as a preventive measure.

(MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

Cisco Systems Inc. has not changed its plans after China’s human bird-flu cases, but the company tells the Journal it remains “very vigilant.” The network equipment made at its San Jose, Calif., headquarters can be assembled and tested by its plants world-wide if the Asian plants are shuttered the company said. And Cisco has asked 8,000 of its workers based in parts of Asia and Eastern Europe with bird-flu outbreaks to update their passports in case of mass evacuation.

In a pandemic, Cisco would require employees traveling to an area where bird flu has been reported to get permission from a company vice president — much as it did during SARS, the Journal said.

Elsewhere, companies that manufacture products such as face masks and rubber gloves are ramping up production, hotel chains are making preparations not only for workers, but also for guests and U.S. food companies with operations in Asia are taking precautions the newspaper said.

Also, airlines, which were hit hard by the SARS outbreak, are working to assuage premature pandemic anxiety the paper said.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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