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The bird flu question of the year (so far):

What does Panasonic know that we don't?

OK, we all saw the headlines earlier this week: Panasonic has acknowledged that is has sent orders to its Japanese executives living overseas that it's time to come home; all HELL is about to break loose.

For those who did not see the headline, and therefore missed the unusual sensation of having the hair stand up on the back of your neck, here's the article:

Panasonic to fly home workers' families over bird flu fears

TOKYO (AFP) — Panasonic Corp. has ordered Japanese employees in some foreign countries to send their families home to Japan in preparation for a possible bird flu pandemic, a spokesman said Tuesday.

Family members of Japanese employees in parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, former Soviet states and Latin America will fly back to Japan by the end of September, Panasonic spokesman Akira Kadota said.

The firm decided to take the rare measure "well ahead of possible confusion at the outbreak of a global pandemic," he said.

Eight people have contracted the H5N1 bird flu virus in China alone this year -- five of whom died.

"The bird flu cases reported so far are infections from bird to human, but once an infection between human beings is reported, things can get chaotic with many other companies trying to bring back their employees," Kadota said.

"We wanted to take action early before it gets difficult to book flight tickets," he said.

The company did not say how many family members would return to Japan. Employees and their families in North America, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore will not be affected.


But another repoort said Panasonic took this unprecedented and controversial step this past December. From the Taipei Times:

Panasonic orders families to return home on flu fears

Wednesday, Feb 11, 2009, Page 10

Panasonic Corp said yesterday it had ordered families of its Japanese overseas employees to return home from emerging countries that the company believes may be at risk of an influenza pandemic.

The employees will stay, but families of those working in parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Russia and South America were ordered in December to return to Japan by the end of September, spokesman Akira Kadota said. (bold and underline mine)

The Osaka-based company is not disclosing the number of the affected families or the employees.

Panasonic, the world’s biggest maker of plasma TVs, last week said it was cutting 15,000 employees from its work force over the next year and forecast its first annual net loss in six years.

Kadota denied the move to bring families home was related to cost-cutting. He said the company had been studying the risks from bird flu for some time and called the order “proactive.”

“It would be very difficult to quickly return home should a pandemic strike,” he said.

Panasonic has 200 affiliated companies overseas, about 70 in China, and 70 more in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region.


But the absolute best news story I have found is from CIDRAP:

Panasonic's Bird Flu Precautions Questioned

GLOBAL - News reports that Panasonic Corp. has asked some of its overseas employees to send their families home to Japan because of the threat of pandemic influenza fueled puzzlement and speculation about the global H5N1 risk and whether other companies might follow suit.

Bloomberg News reported that in December 2008 Panasonic asked employees in some of its Asian offices (excluding Singapore), Africa, Eastern Europe, and South America to send their families back to Japan by September.

Akira Kadota, a Panasonic spokesman, told Bloomberg that the request to employees is an element of its pandemic planning. "We chose areas after considering the prevalence of bird flu and the capability of medical facilities and access to them," he said.

Earlier this month, Panasonic announced that it was cutting 15,000 jobs and anticipated a loss this year. However, Kadota told Bloomberg that bringing the employee families home from certain areas wasn't a cost-cutting measure.

China and Egypt have recently reported human H5N1 cases, a typical pattern during cooler seasons, but avian flu experts have not reported any mutations that would make the virus more transmissible among humans, and global health officials have not raised the H5N1 alert level.

Gregory Hartl, a spokesman for the World Health Organization (WHO), told CIDRAP News that there has been no change in the perceived pandemic threat level that might explain Panasonic's action.

"We are still at pandemic phase 3," Hartl commented by e-mail. "The behavior of the virus remains the same now as in past years: an upturn in cases in the northern hemisphere winter months, but with the epidemiology remaining the same (little if any human to human transmission, and no sustained human to human transmission within the community). There is no public health justification for acting differently now from in previous years."

A senior US government official who asked to remain anonymous told CIDRAP News today that though the pandemic threat persists and the need for preparations is critical, officials see no increased threat that would prompt any revisions of their pandemic advice or warning messages to Americans living abroad.

Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, publisher of CIDRAP News and the CIDRAP Business Source, said he fielded a number of calls today from people in several business sectors who were worried about the significance of Panasonic's move. "They wanted to know if this is for real," he said.

Penny Turnbull, PhD, senior director for crisis management and business continuity planning for Marriott International, Inc., said she was surprised and perplexed by Panasonic's decision, given that there has been no significant change in the number, location, or transmission of avian flu infections in humans. She said the implications for other companies aren't clear.

"Companies might wonder on what intelligence Panasonic based this decision, but I find it hard to believe that any will be following suit in the near future, though they might start monitoring the news more closely for some time to come," said Turnbull, who is also an editorial board member of the CIDRAP Business Source.

Osterholm said heightened concern over the Panasonic news is a reminder that a company's decisions can have far-reaching unintended consequences and that in the early days a pandemic is likely to generate hysteria, not factual or science-based information.

He also said that Panasonic's decision isn't a breaking news story, because the company reportedly issued the new policy in December. "If this was a real pandemic concern, companies would have minutes to hours, not weeks to months, to prepare for this," he said. (bold and underline mine)

Panasonic's decision to repatriate the families of employees in some of its locations raises more questions about the company's motives or if its risk assessment is seriously flawed, Osterholm added. "This tells me how ill prepared some of these companies are," he said.

Bloomberg News published its initial story on Panasonic's request to its foreign employees last night, citing a Nikkei news story that did not quote any Panasonic sources. That prompted a handful of editors from prominent pandemic flu blogs, such as Avian Flu Diary and A Pandemic Chronicle, to swing into action, said Sharon Sanders, editor-in-chief of FluTrackers, a well-known Web message board that focuses on avian flu developments.

The editors met online late last night to coordinate their coverage of the story and ask their contributors to translate foreign-language information on the Panasonic development, Sanders told CIDRAP News. She said she connected with Panasonic's spokesman in Japan last night to flesh out some of the facts, which Bloomberg obtained and reported in today's updates of its stories.


OK, so now you are as caught up as anyone in the CIA.

So in the immortal words of Slim Pickens: What in the wide-wide-world of sports is-a-goin-on-here?

What does Panasonic know? When did they know it? And are they just slightly ahead of their time, as the old-school ad campaign suggested?  Or is its corporate risk assessment flawed and in need of a good shaking-up, as Dr. Osterholm speculates?  Or does the spirit of Nostradamus live in the Panasonic corporate mainframe?

First, we know Panasonic made the corporate decision in December. That meant they had some reason in December, if not earlier, to believe (not suspect, but believe) that H5N1 was on the march in a decidedly bad way.

Looking back at the November/December 2008 timeframe, there is nothing untoward to signify that bird flu was marching anywhere except into oblivion. There were no human cases to speak of; the world was preoccupied with the results of the US presidential election and the economic meltdown; and bird flu was strictly a problem of the Asians, Indonesians and Indians.

Or so we thought. 

For Panasonic to have come to this conclusion in December, sending the word out to its executives to get their dependents out of faraway places where travel is problematic, strongly foreshadows the events of January and February.  Regarding that explosion of cases: Were they tipped, were they right, or were they just lucky?  And have they overreacted?

It is certainly possible that Panasonic was tipped off about this new "living chickens" bird flu problem, this possible change of vectors to infect humans, and knew that new human cases would come in rapid-fire succession. It is possible that they knew, or at least strongly suspected, that the first six weeks of 2009 would bring a flurry of human cases not seen in the past three years. And it is possible that this prompted the Panasonic leadership, as pragmatic and as deeply rooted in seriousness as any company on the planet, to take this solo step of placing itself out there for ridicule and scorn.

But to make this decision in December still brings us back to this: What did they know? What did they learn?

Panasonic has huge financial interests in China. It is safe to say that China would not condone such a public move by one of its manufacturing partners, especially if that move cast aspersions on China itself. Look no further than the SARS epidemic's origins and initial government behavior for confirmation of that fact.

But it is also safe to say that because of its presence, Panasonic has eyes and ears in many, many places. And with its acquisition of Sanyo, those eyes and ears are multiplied. Is it possible that Panasonic has its hooks into the Chinese medical establishment? Into rural hospitals and farm areas? Is Panasonic's surveillance, unfettered and probably free(er) of Chinese government censorship, better than the WHO, the OIE or the FAO?

Or is it a real case of Panasonic preparing to cease manufacturing and distribution operations at these many locations, and they wanted a better cover than "We can't sell these damn plasmas and we will never admit that, so we will use bird flu as the cover story so our stock does not tank?"

That, of course, constitutes corporate lying, and stock regulators all over the planet would have a very hard time not jailing senior Panasonic executives for such a contrived and deliberate cover-up. Especially not now, with the global economy in peril.

Nor would Panasonic risk triggering a panic, alluded to in the excellent CIDRAP story. that is absolutely counterproductive and would wind up hurting Panasonic badly, and perhaps permanently.

So we must conclude that Panasonic has tossed all this about in its corporate boardrooms and acted based on that information.  It knows something, or suspects something, that we apparently do not.  Just what "something" is, is unknown at this time. But the inference is crystal--clear: Panasonic believes strongly that an influenza pandemic will start over the summer, and is staking its corporate reputation on pulling its dependents out of harm's way before the event starts.

Recall there have been accusations, sometimes made public and later recanted, that Chinese bird flu deaths are woefully underreported. Perhaps the announcement from the Japanese military that they will fly home citizens living overseas if/when a pandemic starts and the Panasonic admission stemmed from the same data. Miss that story? Here it is:

SDF planes to fly home Japanese stranded in event of flu pandemic

The Defense Ministry has drafted an action plan that will allow government aircraft to bring home stranded Japanese following the overseas outbreak of a new type of pandemic influenza, it has been learned.

The plan calls for the dispatch of Self-Defense Force's aircraft, including chartered government jets, if an outbreak of influenza leads to the suspension of commercial airline and passenger-ship services, preventing Japanese from returning home. It also refers to treating these people at SDF hospitals after they return.

The plan is expected to be announced as early as March, according to sources.

The draft also states that SDF medical officers will be deployed at airports and ports if there are insufficient quarantine officers to cope with a flood of Japanese returning from an affected country, the sources said.

(Feb. 4, 2009)

In my opinion, there is virtually zero possibility that the Panasonic senior leadership misinterpreted the Defense Ministry statement.  These guys all know each other; they play golf together; and they have each other in their Rolodexes.  The Japanese are nothing if not meticulous. 

I also find zero coincidence between this statement and the Panasonic action.  The concept -- Fly stranded Japanese home when the excrement hits the fan -- is just too similar to be coincidental.

Is there also a coincidence between this and the Federal Stimulus package?  Both chambers included hundreds of millions of dollars for pandemic preparedness, which alert budget-reading maniacs have alertly pointed out to us, may God bless them. 

So let's stay tuned.  And stay very, very watchful in case any other Asian conglomerates do the same thing.

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