SARS virus battens down some business hatches

With a few fitness equipment companies calling back staff or postponing and rethinking trips to Asia and trade shows, the mystery SARS virus is beginning to make its mark on the overall sporting goods business. No cure or treatment is in site, although officials revealed today they have a test, albeit one with some shortcomings.
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With a few fitness equipment companies calling back staff or postponing and rethinking trips to Asia and trade shows, the mystery SARS virus is beginning to make its mark on the overall sporting goods business. No cure or treatment is in site, although officials revealed today they have a test, albeit one with some shortcomings.

So far the virus has infected more than 2,600 people in 18 countries (up by 1,000 in just a week), with at least 95 deaths worldwide. Health authorities say they are most concerned about how air travel is accelerating the spread of the contagious disease. The test announced today may not diagnose the virus in early stages, may take three weeks to fully diagnose it, and it may be weeks before it is widely available, officials said.

Meanwhile, companies are beginning to exercise caution (see our story from March 31).

New Balance, for example, has asked its employees to follow safety precautions and prevention advice prescribed by health authorities, as well as issued workplace safety guidelines. The Boston, Mass.-based, company has approximately 45 employees in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore. This came after the company restricted all nonessential business travel as of March 17 because of the military action in Iraq.

"We have encouraged the use of teleconferencing, videoconferencing and the use of the Internet as viable substitutes for in-person meetings," a spokeswoman told SNEWS. However, the company added that it has not seen any impact on its overseas business operations.

adidas AG suspended all international air travel as of March 25, citing war and the SARS virus for the stance, according to the Wall Street Journal last week. Nike Inc. spokesman Vada Manager said the company had suspended all "non-business-critical international travel."

"You see a lot more cars in the parking lot late at night than you used to, because we're relying much more on videoconferencing these days," Manager said.

John Shanley, a footwear analyst at Wells Fargo Securities, a unit of Wells Fargo & Co., who brings a group of clients on a tour of footwear factories in southern China every spring, told the paper he canceled this year's trip in February because investors didn't want to travel internationally during wartime. Now, there is the threat of disease. Last week, he says, the SARS virus was isolated at a factory about 10 miles away from a footwear factory that was on his itinerary.

"I don't think being so close to the mystery pneumonia would really impress my clients," Shanley said.

SNEWS View: OK, so these are still small numbers even compared to those 36,000 who die annual from the flu, but World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control officials say there is still so much that is unknown about this new virus that precaution is necessary. If that means canceling trips or taking advantage of videoconferencing, so be it. The advantages of air travel in this case have become a deadly disadvantage.

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