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Tech firms respond to Asia disease scare

Hewlett-Packard shuts down a Hong Kong office amid fears of the SARS outbreak. But other tech companies say they've not yet been affected.

An outbreak of a deadly disease in Asia prompted Hewlett-Packard to close a 300-person office in Hong Kong on Friday and take added precautionary measures, but other technology companies say they haven't been affected by the scare.

The possibility that an HP employee working out of a Hong Kong office contracted severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) led the company to send home all workers at that facility. HP is cleaning the office--which takes up five floors in an office tower on Hong Kong island--and also has distributed information about the illness to its staff throughout Asia.

"We're notifying all employees in the region (about) what they can do to try to prevent catching it," said Monica Sarkar, an HP spokeswoman.

SARS is a pneumonialike illness that has claimed more than 50 victims across Asia. Earlier this month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommended that people planning nonessential travel to Hong Kong, China's Guangdong province and Hanoi, Vietnam, consider postponing their trips. Cases of the disease also have been established in Taiwan, and Taiwanese businesspeople with commercial ties to China are worried about the spread of the disease there, according to reports in The Taipei Times.

The disease raises questions about tech companies' operations, similar to the issues raised by an earthquake that shook Taiwan in 1999. The quake severely disrupted manufacturing at the Hsinchu industrial park south of Taipei, and in the process created shortages of graphics chips, memory chips and other components necessary for building personal computers and laptops. Personal computer makers took a hit from the quake.

Technology companies have extensive manufacturing facilities in the Asia-Pacific region and often depend on components made there.

Networking equipment giant Cisco Systems, for example, uses components made in Asia. The company also has a sales office in Hong Kong and other offices in China. So far, SARS has left the company unscathed, said spokesman Jim Brady. "This hasn't impacted our ongoing operations."

Intel has a regional sales office in Hong Kong, research and development facilities in Beijing and Shanghai and an assembly test facility outside of Shanghai. So far, though, all operations are running smoothly, and the chipmaker has not changed its travel policy, said company spokesman Chuck Mulloy.

"We haven't been affected yet," he said. "But clearly we're monitoring the situation very closely."

HP, meanwhile, has added the disease to its list of reasons to avoid noncritical business travel to Asia, Sarkar said. Already, HP has limited travel worldwide to business-critical trips as a result of the war in Iraq, and has completely suspended travel to 10 Middle Eastern countries, Sarkar said.

Technology companies are of mixed opinions about the effects of the Iraq war. Oracle, for one, cited the conflict as a factor behind pinched revenue, but others say they haven't been affected. A prolonged war is expected to slow down the business of sending information technology work overseas.

HP doesn't expect the SARS outbreak to hurt its manufacturing or shipping operations, Sarkar said.

She said the Hong Kong office will remain shut while the company determines whether the employee suspected of having SARS is actually ill with the disease. If a SARS-related illness is confirmed, HP will keep workers from the office at home during the incubation period of the disease, she said. According to a U.S. State Department fact sheet, the incubation period between exposure to infection and the development of symptoms appears to range between two and 10 days.

As Asian authorities scramble to contain the outbreak of SARS, citizens in the region are turning to the Internet and mobile communications to protest public health policy and spread word of traditional Asian remedies for the deadly virus.

A chain e-mail currently being circulated throughout countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan details a recipe for a soup that is touted to clear toxins from the body and build up resistance to SARS.

Medical experts have said there is no conclusive evidence to prove the benefits of the broth, which involves boiling green beans and potatoes with brown sugar.

CNETAsia's John Lui and Winston Chai contributed to this report.