MIT simulates bird flu

At first, the reports from your supplier in China seem innocent enough: an assembly line worker has become very ill and is hospitalized with flu-like symptoms. Before you know it, workers are dying, the government has quarantined your factory and its contents, your supply chain is in ruins, and reporters are camped out at your company headquarters with a fleet of satellite news trucks.

What happened? H5N1, that's what. The deadly new strain of influenza isn't just fodder for epidemiologists -- it's a serious threat to enterprises and to the entire global economy, according to a recent avian flu "business disruption simulation" conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Center for Transportation and Logistics.

The day-long exercise just off the MIT campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, used real business continuity experts from Arnold Communications, EMC, and Intel to test out the response of an imaginary cell phone maker, Vaxxon, to an H5N1 outbreak at a key supplier's factory in the imaginary mainland China city of "Geeling."

The simulation was led by Mary Pimm, of Intel's Corporate Emergency Operations Center, and revealed some of the challenges of dealing with a crisis like bird flu. During three simulated days, executives from Vaxxon struggled to get manufactured SlimPhone mobile phones out of quarantine and shipped to the U.S. market, quell fears of cell-phone borne viruses among dock workers in the U.S., keep their supply chain intact and address the health needs of employees quarantined inside the Chinese plant.

Companies should begin preparing now for disruptions like H5N1, killer hurricanes like Katrina and other disasters, according to Yossi Sheffi, director at the Center for Transportation and Logistics (CTL).

That means investing in communications and technology infrastructure that will allow as many employees as possible to work remotely, experts agree.