Jack Devine
Jack Devine

The coronavirus that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of 2019 has spread to at least 15 countries, with the vast majority of the nearly 8,000 reported cases occurring in China. The virus has resulted in 170 reported fatalities, all in China so far.

We are still in the early days and there are as yet many unknowns. It is not clear how easily the virus (2019-nCoV) is transmitted from person-to-person, the typical severity of the disease, its lethality or the ultimate extent of its spread. What experts do agree on is that the actual number of cases is likely much larger than the numbers reported.

At this point, 2019-nCoV has a far lower fatality rate than the MERS or SARS coronaviruses, but it is more lethal than typical seasonal influenza. Virus symptoms can resemble the flu or a bad cold in mild cases, but more severe cases can cause high fever, difficulty breathing, and lung lesions.

China has taken extraordinary measures to contain the virus such as severe travel restrictions in Wuhan and other major cities, effectively locking tens of millions of people in place, as well as other measures like suspending school in the capital. However, the risk of significant global spread remains high. India has its first confirmed case. If the virus breaks out in India in a major way, the global picture could change dramatically. India has nearly a fifth of the world's population, but it does not have anywhere near China's capacity for implementing containment measures.

Global corporations are taking protective measures. Companies like Google, Starbucks and McDonald's are temporarily closing offices and stores in China, major airlines are cutting back on flights to and from China, and firms like Facebook and Goldman Sachs are implementing the CDC's recommendation to stop all non-essential travel to China.

However, even companies without a significant global work force would do well to revisit and augment their business continuity plans. The United States has thus far seen a handful of imported cases, but the CDC expects the number of cases here to increase, and person-to-person spread in the U.S. is a real possibility. Companies should have in place travel policies, social distancing guidelines, cleaning protocols and illness/return to work recommendations that unfold in step with key outbreak indicators.

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Jack Devine is senior consultant at The Dilenschneider Group and founding partner and president of The Arkin Group LLC. He was formerly Deputy Director of Operations at the Central Intelligence Agency.