LONDON/NEW YORK (Reuters) –
Companies began restricting employee travel in response to a potential flu pandemic that has claimed at least 149 lives in Mexico and weighed stronger measures, while an unconfirmed case at Ernst & Young led the firm to close a portion of its New York office.
With up to 1,600 suspected cases of the new strain in Mexico and confirmed or suspected cases in a dozen other countries as far apart as the United States, Spain and Australia, world health experts are moving closer to declaring the first flu pandemic in 40 years.
In New York, Ernst & Young said it could no longer confirm an employee has a verified case of the swine flu -- underscoring the fast-changing nature of events.
The accounting firm earlier told staff in its Times Square tower they could work from home after a female staff member was initially said to be diagnosed with swine flu. It also told employees on assignment or holiday in Mexico to consider returning home and avoid travel if ill.
"Out of an abundance of caution, we have taken appropriate steps to protect the health of our employees," Ernst & Youngspokesman Charles Perkins said in a statement.
U.S. Internet giant Google Inc also cited an abundance of caution in closing its Mexico City office, the only one it has in the country. Google did not specify how many staff were affected or how long the closure would last.
Microsoft Corp encouraged Mexico employees to work from home but said offices are operating normally.
Xerox Corp said it is investigating a possible case among its 800 employees in Mexico but has no confirmation. It told employees who visited Mexico not to come to work for three days or visit customers, since the flu has a 72-hour incubation period before symptoms appear.
Chemicals maker DuPont Co has suspended travel to and from Mexico until May 6th.
"Travel within Mexico is business critical only, and only if the employee is willing to travel," spokesman Anthony Farina told Reuters.
Qualcomm Inc, EMC Corp and Electrolux were among those considering travel restrictions.
"A general travel ban is being considered at the moment," said Electrolux spokesman Anders Edholm.
Electrolux, with around 3,400 employees at two plants in Juarez, Mexico, set up an employee hotline to answer medical questions. It stepped up cleaning of facilities to help counter any spread of the disease while setting contingency plans for how an outbreak among company staff would be handled.
Earlier, companies in Europe and Asia detailed responses that ranged from postponing trips to asking expatriate staff to return home.
"We gave new travel instructions because of the swine flu," said Finland's Nokia, the world's largest mobile handset maker, which has a plant at Reynosa in Mexico. "The new guidance is that all nonessential travel from and to Mexico should be postponed for the time being."
In Germany, consumer goods maker Henkel is asking employees to postpone trips to Mexico and Henkel's health service is providing information on symptoms and preventative measures. Sporting goods maker Puma asked employees to travel to Mexico only if it is really urgent.
German airline Lufthansa has not taken concrete measures, but executive board member Stefan Lauer said the company had prepared plans in close coordination with health officials in readiness for any worsening in the situation.
German airport operator Fraport said it was looking at tightening checks at Frankfurt Airport, but there were no special precautions for passengers arriving from Mexico.
Denso Corp, the world's biggest listed auto-parts maker, said it had recommended families of its expatriate staff in Mexico temporarily return to Japan.
Honda Motor Co is considering sending Japanese families of expatriate workers home, although production was continuing as normal. Japan's No. 2 automaker, which also has production facilities in Mexico, has suspended global business travel until at least May 6.
South Korean electronics companies Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics, which both have units in Mexico, said they were limiting travel to the country.
A spokeswoman for Australian supermarkets group Woolworths initially asked staff to cancel nonessential overseas business travel but was rethinking that "because now all the advice is you can't contain it through lack of travel."
Asian companies in particular have traveled this road before. Most cases of bird flu, the most recent virus with pandemic potential, occurred in Asia, as did the SARS pandemic in 2003, which killed almost 800 people.
During the height of the SARS outbreak, many major multinational companies imposed severe restrictions on people entering and leaving their Asian manufacturing compounds, affecting thousands of workers.
(Additional reporting by Franklin Paul, Bill Rigby, Alexei Oreskovic, Hezron Selvi, Jim Finkle, Sinead Carew, Lisa Baertlein, Eva Kuehnen, Dani Backteg and bureaus worldwide; Editing by John Stonestreet, Brian Moss and Bernard Orr)