Hoffmann-La Roche President and CEO George Abercrombie told Houston-area business leaders and investors at BioHouston's Texas Life Science Conference the threat of an Avian Flu pandemic is as real as ever, despite not being in the news headlines. He said the World Health Organization renewed warnings as recently as a month ago.
"Pandemics occur every 30 years throughout history, and we're ready for another one, if you look at those statistics. So I'm trying to convey to companies and organizations that now is the time to prepare. If you're running a company, if you have a critical business that must continue in the event of a global pandemic, you have to put plans together now. A pandemic is not like a static event—a hurricane or tornado that sweeps through and disappears. Rather, a pandemic comes in two to three waves, over a 12 to 18-month period, and each wave lasts eight weeks—sometimes longer—and the Health and Human Services Department and the World Health Organization recommend that up to 30 to 40 percent of the population could be inflicted by a H5N1 pandemic, so that's a huge number of people who are sick at home unable to come to work. So now is the time to plan."
Abercrombie says another pandemic is inevitable, at some point, according to the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, at Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization.
"The good news is the H5N1 virus has been around now since the late 90s. The bad news is it's spreading around the world in fowl, in birds. The deaths continue in Southeast Asia, and we are at stage 3 of a six-stage process that will lead to a global pandemic. We have human, we have human infections but no widespread human-to-human infection, and we know that these viruses are smart and they constantly mutate. So the fear is that the H5N1, like other, other viruses causing other pandemics will ultimately mutate to allow for easy human-to-human transmission, and that is the trigger point for a pandemic. The reason you have to prepare now is because when that occurs, with today's air travel around the world—if you recall the SARS incident—it could be a matter of days before, you know, infection spreads around the world. So now is the time to get ready."
Abercrombie says the message is getting out, but there's a long way to go.
"Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson was quoted recently as saying that companies really are looking at this like a deer in the headlights—they know it's a threat, but, you know, no one thinks it could happen to us. The message is getting out, but we have a long way to go."
Abercrombie says it's a fine line between warning people and being alarmist.
"It is a fine line, and as Secretary Michael Levitt of HHS says, you know, his job is to make people aware of the threat, and I feel that that's my company's responsibility, too." Ed: "Is your message being heard, I mean, do you think that..." "It is being heard. I personally am speaking around the country at forums such as this, and I think that when people hear what I call the raw facts about a pandemic and what it could cause, it really, it really gets their attention."
A recent poll finds that 66 percent of U.S. companies believe a pandemic will seriously disrupt their operations, but only 20 percent are in good position to react effectively.