SINGAPORE Electronics manufacturers in Asia are reportedly taking steps to prevent the spread of avian influenza at their facilities as fears rise that the bird flu could prove more damaging to some Asian economies than last year's outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.
In Malaysia, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s consumer product operations and Dell Computer Corp.'s manufacturing and customer support facility have adopted more stringent health and safety standards in reaction to the bird flu, according to R Ramakrishnam, managing director of Pearl Precision, a plastics molding and tooling company based in Kuala Lumpur. "I have heard that there are temperature checks of employees on a daily basis, similar to [last winter's] anti-SARS measures," he said. "Also, I have heard that chicken is no longer being offered in [company] canteens. No one wants to fall victim to a virus that might be as deadly as SARS."
Singapore's electronics sector grew 17.2 percent in 2003, driven by a pickup in mobile-phone and consumer electronics sales. But confidence in the recovery fails to take into account the "danger that the bird flu may cause significant damage to the economy," said Andrew Taylor, regional economic analyst in Hong Kong for Axiom Consulting.
When SARS hit Asia last year, several economists expected its impact would be limited to the tourism and retail businesses, but it eventually affected the manufacturing industry as well. The World Bank said that SARS chipped 0.3 percent to 0.8 percent off the growth rate of most Asian countries in 2003.
Taylor warned that the impact of such outbreaks is more than purely financial. "We are not just measuring the economic losses but an overall loss in confidence socially, politically and psychologically," he said. "It's an all-round effect that I am worried about."
The World Health Organization reported last week that eight people in Vietnam and two in Thailand had died from the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, which is similar to the strain that hit Hong Kong and China's Guangdong province in 1997. That strain resulted in a mortality rate of 33 percent among Hong Kong's sufferers.
Current evidence indicates the H5N1 virus is not easily transferred from person to person; the major agent of human infection thus far is believed to be poultry stocks. But if H5N1 "attaches itself to the common flu virus and if this new virus is then effectively transmitted like the common flu virus, we have the potential for widespread damage," a spokesman for the WHO's western Pacific region office (Manila, Philippines) said last week. The common flu is easily spread from person to person through the air.
Outbreaks of H5N1 have so far been concentrated in the main poultry-growing regions of Asia. Authorities in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Laos have collectively responded by culling more than 20 million chickens thus far from their poultry stocks. Singapore's Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority has said it is prepared to cull all the chickens in Singapore and place farms under quarantine at the first sign of the virus.
So far Thailand has culled nearly 11 million chickens in two western provinces, and government officials said the virus has been detected in eight provinces in the north, stretching to the Laos border. Thailand is home to several large manufacturing concerns and is known as the automobile assembly capital of the Far East.
Indonesia has been slower to react. Instead of taking steps that might destroy a $5.9 billion industry, it has taken a wait-and-see attitude and said the strain of bird flu identified in Thailand and Vietnam is different from the strain found in Indonesia.
A recent WHO report said it could take up to six months to develop a vaccine to protect humans from the bird flu, adding that the vaccine will probably not be ready in time to stop the outbreak now sweeping Asia. WHO-linked laboratories are working to come up with a prototype vaccine, which would be passed on to commercial laboratories for production.
The first batches of the vaccine could be technically ready in four months, health experts said. But raising production sufficiently to cover millions of people in Asia would take substantially longer.