Tech firms respond to deadly illness

Sun Microsystems and ATI Technologies are the latest technology companies to see plans in Asia disrupted as a result of the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Ed Frauenheim Former Staff Writer, News
Ed Frauenheim covers employment trends, specializing in outsourcing, training and pay issues.
Ed Frauenheim
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Sun Microsystems and ATI Technologies are the latest tech companies to see their plans in Asia disrupted by fears of a deadly flulike disease.

Concerns about severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) led computer-maker Sun to cancel the Shanghai portion of a massive product launch it had scheduled for April 7 and to postpone a major conference that had been expected to draw 4,000 attendees. Chipmaker ATI postponed an Asian tour to show off its new line of products.

These decisions come on top of steps taken by tech giants Motorola, Hewlett-Packard and Intel to shut facilities to prevent the spread of SARS.

In ATI's case, CEO K.Y. Ho and other company officials were scheduled to visit Taiwan and other Asian sites to introduce new graphics chips. But the company had already unveiled the products in Europe and North America, and health worries won out, said Paul Ayscough, ATI's head of corporate marketing. "The timing of this tour was not business critical," he said. "We decided to put the safety of the team first."

A Sun representative said that to avoid the illness, the company will put a San Francisco event at the center of its launch, which will involve new servers, software, storage systems and services.

The announcements had been planned for the company's SunNetwork Asia conference and a related summit for business partners. Sun plans to reschedule the events, the company said.

According to the World Health Organization, SARS is an atypical pneumonia of unknown cause that was first recognized in February. As of Monday, the organization said, 1,622 cases, with 58 deaths, had been reported. Cases of the disease have been reported in Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Taiwan.

The WHO said the disease seems to be spread by close contact with an infected person. The majority of cases have occurred in hospital workers who have cared for SARS patients and the close family members of these patients. The organization says antibiotics do not appear to be effective, and that no drug can, at this time, be recommended for prevention or treatment. Some patients diagnosed with the disease have improved, however.

Over the weekend, semiconductor giant Intel told about 60 to 70 employees assigned to a Hong Kong office that they should stay home this week. The decision came after one employee at the office showed symptoms of SARS, Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy said. The affected employees work on one floor of a three-floor office that serves as Intel's sales and marketing headquarters for the region. "As a precaution, and given the environment there, we decided to let our employees work from home this week," Mulloy said.

A report Monday in DigiTimes, a Taiwan publication, said Intel was evaluating whether CEO Craig Barrett will fly to Taiwan to attend the Intel Developers Forum in Taipei on April 14. Mulloy told CNET News.com that Barrett's trip has not been canceled at this time. "We're continuing to monitor the situation," he said. "We'll take steps as appropriate to ensure the safety of our employees and our customers."

Motorola, meanwhile, has seen operations at a Singapore plant affected by the disease. According to Singapore's health ministry, 305 workers from the plant's night shift are quarantined at home. On Thursday, the U.S.-based electronics maker decided to tell all 532 night-shift workers to stay home following news that a female worker was diagnosed with SARS. The infected worker has been discharged from the hospital.

The plant is running at partial capacity at night, but workers have been added to the day production line to make up the shortfall, company spokeswoman Lynn Chan said.

Singapore is regional home base for many tech multinationals, and unofficial reports say that several of them have told staff to cancel travel plans to the affected areas. Also, many companies are allowing parents to take leave to care for children affected by a nationwide school closure.

Elsewhere in the region, a possible SARS infection in one of its employees also prompted tech giant Hewlett-Packard to shutter the doors of a 300-person Hong Kong office on Friday.

HP said it has started cleaning the office, which is located on five floors of an office tower on Hong Kong island. HP has also distributed information about the illness to its staff throughout the region.

The Hong Kong office will remain shut while the company determines whether the employee suspected of having SARS is actually ill with the disease, HP spokeswoman Monica Sarkar said Friday. If a SARS-related illness is confirmed, HP will keep workers from the office at home during the incubation period of the disease, she added, to make sure they've not been infected.

The incubation period is estimated to range from 2 to 7 days, with 3 to 5 days being more common, according to the WHO.

CNETAsia's Winston Chai and News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.