SARS virus warning may affect Asia travel, business

With the expansion of the warning against travel to China due to the spread of the deadly mystery virus called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the fitness industry is postponing or canceling trips to Asian manufacturers, customers or shows -- or watching carefully.
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With the expansion of the warning against travel to China due to the spread of the deadly mystery virus called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the fitness industry is postponing or canceling trips to Asian manufacturers, customers or shows -- or watching carefully -- although some company executives seemed unruffled last week.

On Saturday, the government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) broadened its travel advisory due to SARS to include all of mainland China as well as Hanoi, Vietnam and Singapore. The previous CDC travel advisory was for Hong Kong and Guangdong Province, People's Republic of China, and Hanoi, Vietnam. Information on the warning and the virus can be found on the CDC website (www.cdc.gov/ncidod/sars) or on the World Health Organization site (www.who.int/csr/sarscountry).

"We are taking every precaution and limiting travel to the Orient unless absolutely necessary," Kevin Lamar, president of The Nautilus Group, told SNEWS last week. "We are using email, engineering software and videoconferencing to keep the business moving forward."

Last week -- before China and Hong Kong had admitted the severity and spread of the disease globally -- SNEWS emailed with several company executives who were in China, and they indicated then they weren't worried and that the virus wasn't in the news.

For example, early last week, Nathan Pyles, co-founder of Vision Fitness and a Johnson Health Tech representative, told SNEWS by email while traveling in Southern China with his family: "From my understanding, this responds to conventional medical treatment and the number of incidents seems to be fairly small."

When informed later in the week about the headline news in North America about the severity of the virus, Pyles said from Shanghai: "Yes, it appears that there had been rumors running around China since the Chinese New Year, but that the China government was trying to keep it under wraps. The English language China newspapers are now running small paragraph-size articles on it -- usually with information that is already stale. The single English language government TV station has yet to mention SARS. In contrast, I heard on the Taiwan news that it's the headliner."

There are so far no known tests, no known cures and no known treatments for the virus, which first broke into international news with a global alert from the CDC and the WHO on March 12. Researchers are working furiously in labs in nine countries to identify the cause, develop a test, and establish treatment for the virus believed to be a new strain of the so-called coronavirus, a family of highly contagious viruses that causes a range of illnesses, including the common cold. The new strain may have mutated from a strain known to infect animals, world health experts have speculated.

As of March 31, nearly 1,600 cases have been reported in 15 countries with 58 deaths, including 34 in China and 11 in Hong Kong. The first cases seemed to have occurred in China as far back as last November, but the CDC said the country has been slow to share information and provide access to affected areas to world health officials. The global spread began in late February.

"We are very concerned about the spread of this virus, particularly in Asia," said the CDC's Julie Gerberding in a press briefing on March 29. "It is a respiratory virus, it does appear to be transmitted very efficiently, and what we know about respiratory viruses suggests that the potential for infecting large numbers of people is very great. We may be in the very early stages of what could be a much larger problem."

Some companies are taking travel warnings more seriously. For example, product management staff at Life Fitness cancelled an upcoming trip to China and Taiwan. Bob Whip, president of Horizon Fitness, said his vice president of sales was ready to head to Asia for a factory tour the week the story broke, but that "between this and the war, we cancelled the trip and we'll just go in a few months."

"Our position is that if it is a non-urgent trip, don't go," Whip said.

Joe Alter, president of Smooth Fitness, is delaying his early April trip to Shanghai and Hong Kong, which was to include some vacation time with his wife in Thailand and Taiwan. "I generally visit the area four to five times a year," said Alter. "This really isn't a huge inconvenience -- most likely I'll go in six weeks or so."

According to Scott Bell, a partner in Belgium-based Eurodev, a business development group that works with outdoor and fitness companies, several buyers in Europe have decided not to attend the TaiSPO International Sporting Goods Show April 11-14 in Taipei, Taiwan, because of the SARS risk.

But others are still trying to move ahead with business, albeit carefully. Ken Lucas, president of Matrix Fitness, also a subsidiary of Johnson Health Tech, with factories in Shanghai and Taiwan, said he has a trip booked to attend the TaiSPO show in April, but is still watching the news every day to make his final decision.

"We're obviously very concerned about this, and we're just playing it day-by-day," Lucas said. "But we do have commitments."

Lucas said the company's COO, Kent Stevens, just returned from Shanghai with a cold, which he also had when he went. Nevertheless, he is going to a doctor this week. The company's vice president of marketing, Scott Sechrest, is also in Shanghai. He told SNEWS by email last week he was "honestly not worried" and that "there is little mention of the SARS illness here." How bad could it be, he speculated by email, if the Rolling Stones were giving a concert, which he was looking forward to attending in Shanghai on April 1. But that concert, along with another on April 4 in Beijing, was cancelled at the end of last week by the Stones ... due to the health risks.

At the Life Fitness subsidiary in Hong Kong, SNEWS was told many employees are wearing surgical masks outside and have been told to go home if they have any symptoms of a cold. Some parents have taken their children out of school.

But Tim Porth, vice president of R&D and marketing for new elliptical company Octane Fitness, who was in Taiwan last week, pointed to the numbers involved in an email response to SNEWS while there: "Taiwan has about six cases out of 22 million people -- pretty slim odds in my opinion. It seems a bit blown out of proportion."

SNEWS View: No, companies don't want to hustle into a cave and hide, but this virus is spreading quickly and is still without cures, tests or treatments. It is perhaps a time to tread carefully -- not to play ostrich -- and to listen to CDC and WHO reports about travel precautions rather than apparently downplayed news out of China or Hong Kong. Numbers may not be huge -- yet -- but they are moving upward more quickly than the doctors can keep up with. Toronto, Canada, has in fact closed or quarantined workers at two hospitals, and the scientist who originally discovered the first clue that a new microbe was beginning to spread around the globe has died from the virus. None of these things are bits of news to take lightly.

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