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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Economists Dismiss Fears About Bird Flu

SINGAPORE -- A bird flu pandemic would hit world economies for one to two quarters as tourism and demand for consumer goods fell sharply, but growth should rebound at a pace similar to Asia's swift recovery from SARS, a senior economist said Wednesday.

Apart from tourism, a human-to-human pandemic would also have a huge impact on airlines, restaurants and hotels as people stopped traveling and stayed at home, said Martin Meltzer, senior health economist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Economies would also see a rapid drop in demand for consumer goods -- including everything from refrigerators to automobiles, he said.

"The SARS outbreak really informed us of what the impact might be," said Meltzer, speaking on the sidelines of a bird flu conference in Singapore held by medical journal Lancet.

"SARS was confined to four or five countries, while an influenza pandemic could occur around the globe," Meltzer said.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2003 killed about 800 people, crippling air travel and tourism, particularly in Asia, causing losses in the billions of dollars.

Tourist arrivals collapsed by 20 percent to 70 percent, and retail sales dropped by 5 percent to 10 percent in the second quarter of 2003, the International Monetary Fund said in a report. It estimated that regional economic growth was cut by 0.6 percentage point. But most industries recovered fairly swiftly once SARS was brought under control.

The World Bank estimates that a year-long bird flu pandemic would cost the world economy $800 billion. Some expect a pandemic could last for six to eight weeks at a time, with renewed waves of infection.

The Asian Development Bank has said a year-long shock would cost Asia as much as $283 billion and would reduce the region's gross domestic product by 6.5 percentage points, hitting Hong Kong and Singapore the hardest. The IMF has said the biggest disruption for economies would come from high absenteeism in the workplace.

The biggest impact of an influenza pandemic, which would likely last less than four months depending on the size of the countries affected, would probably hit growth for just one to two quarters, Meltzer said.

"After that, I expect to see a great rebound," he said. "People will return, and we will see normal growth rates."