By Jon Campisi, who has been a writer and editor for a number of media outlets in the Philadelphia area.
A new strain of influenza that surfaced in China is generating plenty of worry across the business world.
But from a risk management perspective, things may not be as dire as they appear. At least not yet.
The World Health Organization recently reported that H7N9, a previously unknown strain of avian influenza, better known as "bird flu," had popped up in China. As of April 14, there were 51 people infected with the disease and 11 deaths. The virus has not been detected in people or birds in the United States.
There appears to be "limited information about the scope of the disease ... and about the source of the exposure," said the WHO on its website. And there's still no indication of whether the disease is transmitted between people or between people and animals.
Human infections with bird flu are rare, but have occurred in the past, usually after exposure to infected poultry, said the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
This is the first time, however, that this particular strain of bird flu, the H7N9, has been found in people, according to the CDC. There is no licensed vaccine to treat it.
The strain also differs from other avian influenzas that have been found in birds in the past, the CDC has said.
"This is a 'novel' (non-human) virus and therefore has the potential to cause a pandemic if it were to change to become easily and sustainably spread from person-to-person," the CDC stated on its website. "So far, this virus has not been determined to have that capability. However, influenza viruses constantly change and it's possible that this virus could gain that ability."
Meanwhile, some question what potential this new disease has in terms of affecting the global economy, especially since many American goods are made in China.
That said, there's not too much to worry about right now, said Maura Sullivan, senior director of life risks for Risk Management Solutions.
"This particular strain is in its infancy so it may not be that interesting as for global economic effects yet," she said.
Something that appears relatively deadly, but isn't actually causing that much statistical loss, shouldn't have a major impact on global supply chains -- at least not yet, said Sullivan.
The supply shock to come out of something like this, as it currently stands, will likely be minimal, although the demand shock would almost assuredly be related to panic.
"It's not super interesting quite yet," Sullivan said. "We've only seen the tip of the iceberg."
But Nita Madhav, a principal analyst at the catastrophe-modeling firm AIR Worldwide, cautioned that this strain of the bird flu has the potential to wreak global havoc if things become progressively worse.
"While there is considerable uncertainty about many features of the virus and its pandemic potential, if the new H7N9 virus acquires the ability to spread easily from person-to-person, a global pandemic could be imminent," said Madhav.
Alicia Fry, a medical epidemiologist in the influenza division of CDC said that, because H7N9 is a novel virus but has human cases, it's very important to monitor the strain's activities closely.
"We're just being prepared in case something happens," Fry said. "I think when it's early like this and it's a zoonotic infection, mostly an animal infection with some human cases, we do a lot of work monitoring the virus and the infections it causes to get a sense of whether or not it's changing and would it have increased pandemic potential."
Right now, however, "it's really hard to predict anything."
April 15, 2013
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