Global corporations are crafting emergency plans for remote work sites and stockpiles of masks and antiviral medicines in case dire predictions of a worldwide bird flu pandemic come true.

Businesses could face travel restrictions, a sharply reduced workforce and disruptions in supply chains if an especially deadly influenza circles the globe and wreaks havoc for months.

A flu pandemic “is a very different set of circumstances than a typical crisis like a bomb or even a hurricane. It plays out over a much longer period of time,” said Tim Daniel, chief operating officer of International SOS, a firm that helps businesses manage health and safety risks for workers.

The H5N1 avian flu virus has killed more than 60 people in Asia. If the virus becomes easy to pass from person to person, some experts predict up to 50 percent of people where the virus is circulating could become ill, and 5 percent could die.

Sick workers would be quarantined, and others would have to stay home to care for ill relatives, or children if schools are closed as a protective measure.

Travel also could be limited in and out of Asia or other areas where the virus was active.

International SOS, which advises big corporations such as Microsoft Corp., General Electric and American Express Co., is providing guidance to firms on everything from proper hygiene to keep a virus from spreading to procedures for repatriating corpses of workers who die overseas.

Many companies are at least considering plans for moving employees to alternate work sites, using videoconferencing to keep operations running and stockpiling flu-fighting medicines, Daniel said.

Roche AG’s Tamiflu and GlaxoSmithKline Plc’s Relenza are prescription antiviral drugs that may be able to prevent infection or relieve symptoms. Governments around the globe are stockpiling antivirals while researchers try to develop a bird flu vaccine, and companies will have to compete for limited supplies of the drugs.

Some experts say corporations are not paying enough attention to pandemic planning, dismissing the worst-case scenarios as unlikely and hoping the virus can be contained.

By Lisa Richwine

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