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Swiss firms respond to virus threat

As concern over a highly contagious form of pneumonia continues to mount, Swiss multinationals operating in Asia have taken steps to protect staff.

Many firms have imposed restrictions on workers travelling to affected countries in an effort to avoid spreading the illness.

Novartis is asking its employees not to travel to Hong Kong or to the Chinese province of Guangdong, where Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) is thought to have originated.

In addition, the pharmaceutical concern has told staff to postpone any planned activities in hospitals in Singapore, Vietnam or other countries where victims have been treated.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 100 people have died and more than 2,500 have been infected with Sars.

Precautions

Nestlé, the world's largest food company, which has a strong presence in Asia, stresses that daily operations must continue.

However, spokesman François-Xavier Perroud, told swissinfo that certain precautions were being insisted upon.

"No business travel [is allowed] between China and Hong Kong and Switzerland," he said.

"For other areas of the world, we have decided that only trips which are absolutely indispensable to the company should be undertaken."

Perroud added that the travel restrictions would remain in place until the public health authorities in the areas affected advised otherwise.

Health fears

Switzerland's largest bank, UBS, told swissinfo that it requires any staff returning from southeast Asia to work from home for ten days following their return.

Spokesman Axel Langer said this was because the WHO estimates the incubation period for Sars to be between two and seven days.

A travel ban for employees of the engineering group, ABB, has already been in place for the past three weeks.

Many companies have left it up to employees to decide whether to consult a doctor, but this is not the case at Credit Suisse.

"Whoever returns from Hong Kong and Guangdong must undergo a medical examination and cannot come into work for ten days," explained spokesperson Martin Somogyi.

"If they are returning from other affected areas, they should consult a doctor before and after travelling."

Outbreak

Other than disrupting travel plans, many companies said the Sars outbreak was having little or no discernable impact on business.

For some companies, like Swiss Re, where the bulk of business is office-based, emails and fax machines are playing a larger role in ensuring continuity.

But the national airline carrier, Swiss, which flies daily to Hong Kong and Singapore and five times a week to Beijing, has experienced a significant drop in demand to some Asian destinations.

The company is hoping that the WHO will identify the virus later this week and recommend further measures to fight it.

"If the epidemic spreads, then we will be strongly affected," said spokesman Dominic Werner.

swissinfo, Faryal Mirza


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