Avian Flu: Can IT Handle a Pandemic?

Studies find most companies have yet to prepare for the work force impact of an avian flu outbreak.

VeriCenter Chief Technology Officer Dave Colesante is a rare bird.

Unlike many IT executives, Colesante has actually thought about a potential avian influenza virus, or bird flu, pandemic and reckons his company, which provides technology services, is relatively prepared if the virus becomes transmitted through human contact.

After all, Colensantes 225-person support staff is used to managing VeriCenters seven data centers from home.

And thats a good thing if a bird flu pandemic hits, because the federal government would encourage "social distancing" to prevent further illness. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, a severe bird flu pandemic would make 30 percent of the population, or 90 million people, ill and result in 2 million deaths. Companies would have absentee rates of about 40 percent. "You would have to set up to remotely manage IT," said Colesante in Houston. "Youd have to leverage connectivity."

The big question: How many companies are prepared for a bird flu pandemic? An AMR Research study released May 2 found that 68 percent of companies with more than $1 billion in revenue arent ready for a pandemic. An earlier study by Deloitte & Touche concluded that two-thirds of companies arent prepared for a pandemic.

/zimages/6/28571.gifThe Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention thinks it has found a way to prevent a bird flu pandemic. Click here to read more.

Among the issues: How do you manage a work force at home? What workers would be on site in data centers to swap servers and manage power? Can companies rely on Internet access in employees homes?

Those questions are likely to pick up for technology workers and others involved with business continuity. Through April 27, the World Health Organization tracked 205 cases of bird flu that led to 113 deaths. On April 28, a mild form of bird flu was found at a live-bird market in New Jersey. Meanwhile, public awareness—not to mention your boss—could be stoked by "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America," an ABC movie airing May 9.

"This is just now becoming a hot button issue," said Henry Fieglein, chief innovation officer of thin-client company Wyse Technology, in Austin, Texas. Fieglein, who was the global director of infrastructure and security architecture at Deutsche Bank, led a task force to prepare the bank for a pandemic. According to Fieglein, the bank is exploring thin-client technology that would extend into workers homes to securely re-create on-site technology such as telephony and trading applications. Deutsche Bank said in a statement that its business continuity plan can "cover a wide range of contingencies, including pandemics," but officials declined further comment.

While preparations are fluid, there is one bright side: We have time. "An avian flu pandemic is not coming tomorrow, and the disease is probably a ways off," said Alex Tabb, principal at The Tabb Group, a New York-based consultancy to financial services firms. "But that doesnt mean you dont plan now."

/zimages/6/28571.gifFor businesses, now is a good time to panic about—or at least plan for—an avian flu pandemic. Click here to read Dan Briodys Biz Bytes blog.

M. Lewis Temares, CIO and dean of the engineering school at the University of Miami, said it cant hurt to bring bird flu preparations to the forefront. "Companies arent paying attention to this at all," said Temares. "Its like Y2K—no one worried about it until right before Y2K. Most dont have a plan."

Companies remain mum about bird flu preparations, but they note the risks. For the fiscal year ended April 24, bird flu was mentioned in annual and quarterly reports 388 times, according to regulatory filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

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