An outbreak of avian influenza among people may cost China, the world's fastest-growing major economy, as much as US$87 billion, according to a study by the Asian Development Bank.
China, the second-biggest poultry-producing country, last week confirmed its first human fatalities from the H5N1 strain of bird flu. The disease, which has killed at least 67 people across Asia since December 2003, has caused farmers and animal health officials to slaughter more than 21 million birds in China this year.
Health authorities say human cases will climb as new outbreaks are reported among the country's 14.2 billion birds.
Human infections heighten concerns that the virus may mutate into a strain more easily passed between humans, leading to a pandemic that may kill millions.
"We need to be clear we're nowhere near a pandemic level, but we need to prepare and take precautionary measures," Asian Development Bank economist Chris Spohr said at a seminar sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing.
The bank estimates the cost of any pandemic to China's economy at between US$28 billion and US$87 billion. That equates to between 1.7 percent and 5.3 percent of the country's GDP.
The cost of any pandemic on the economies in Asia outside Japan may range from US$113 billion to US$300 billion, depending on when health officials are able to contain the virus and how quickly investors are able to recover from the psychological shock.
As many as three-quarters of multinational companies are concerned about avian flu and have taken precautionary measures, including formulating crisis management plans, said Christian van der Walt, director of the International Medical SOS for the China region, citing a Sept. 20 survey conducted by the medical company.
"If bird flu were to reach epidemic levels, up to 20 percent of your workforce could be gone at any one time because they are sick or need to take care of family members," Van Der Walt said at the seminar.
Bird flu has infected at least 130 people in China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, the World Health Organization (WHO) said last Thursday. North Korea intensified quarantine controls and surveillance at borders, airports and port terminals, the official North Korean news agency said in a report yesterday, citing Kim Hyong-chol, a quarantine official.
"There is no need to panic," Henk Bekedam, the WHO's representative in China, said at the seminar in Beijing.
"The current virus is not easily transferable among humans, but we need to get ready. We have some time, but the time to get ready is now," he said.
Every company should begin forming crisis management committees and appoint a senior executive as the spokesman for the company during a crisis, said Scott Kronick, president of public relations firm Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide in China, which is assisting companies with their emergency response plans.
The business community needs to be aware of the risks of avian flu and needs more information on how to prepare for any outbreak in China's cities, said American Chamber of Commerce chairman Emory Williams.