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Are Chickens Coming for Your Supply Chain?

July 2, 2024


A couple of years ago, as the coronavirus pandemic was winding down, Bill Gates predicted, “We’ll have another pandemic. It will be a different pathogen next time.”[1] A little over a year later, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), reiterated that warning. He stated, “The threat of another variant emerging that causes new surges of disease and death remains.”[2] We might not have to wait long. Journalist Bruce Gil reports, “A former director of the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is predicting that the next pandemic could come from the bird flu virus that is spreading rapidly among U.S. poultry and cattle.”[3] During an interview on NewsNation, former CDC chief Robert Redfield stated, “It’s not a question of if, it’s more of a question of when we will have a bird flu pandemic.” Experts watched with alarm as the recent outbreak of bird flu spread from chickens to dairy cows to humans. Supply risk managers are also watching this potential disaster unfold knowing full well the negative effects the coronavirus outbreak had on supply chains.


Are You Ready for the Next Pandemic?


Although he didn’t specifically have a bird flu pandemic in mind, John Chambers, the former executive chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems and current CEO and founder of JC2 Ventures, understands that the most successful companies prepare for future disruptions. He explains, “I’ve managed many crises with serious supply chain implications. The lessons I learned from them have helped me build a playbook for dealing with setbacks that I’ve used ever since.”[4] He suggests three things companies should do to prepare for the next crisis. They are:


1. Go digital. Chambers explains, “It’s essential to digitize as many processes as possible in the supply chain. A fully digital supply chain strategy can have a significant positive impact on operations. A 2016 Boston Consulting Group study found that adopting digital supply chain technologies helped companies achieve, on average, 10% higher product availability and a 25% faster response to market changes compared to companies lagging in digitization.” He also recommends using advanced technologies, like the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), advanced analytics, and digital twins. He writes, “[These technologies will help organizations} to glean diagnostic and predictive insights from the massive number of events constantly occurring within their chains, helping leaders to better understand the health of the chain, plan for future crises, and rectify problems in real time.”


2. Explore options. According to Chambers, “Businesses should use the information collected from these digital tools to build a crisis management team.” He adds, “During my time leading Cisco, we developed business continuity plans with our manufacturing facilities team that focused on preparing for disrupted supply from manufacturing partners and potential quality issues that might arise in our supply chain during a crisis.” During the coronavirus pandemic, Enterra Solutions® developed the Enterra Global Insights and Decision Superiority System™ (EGIDS™) to help organizations make better decisions about the future. EGIDS let’s decisionmakers view a range of possibilities and potential outcomes that could occur as the business environment changes. It also helps decisionmakers examine hundreds of different scenarios at computer speed so that the best course of action can be selected.


3. Sharpen supply chain visibility. Finally, Chambers suggests, “Companies should gain as much visibility as they can into the details of their supply chain. Lack of visibility can frustrate a company’s ability to plan ahead and retard the decision-making process. On the flip side, better visibility can help risk management teams more effectively anticipate disruptions.”


Will Bird Flu be the Supply Chain’s Next Big Disruption?


Apoorva Mandavilli, a journalist who has been tracking the H5N1 virus (the cause of bird flu) for more than 20 years, writes, “The bird flu outbreak in dairy cattle has so far spilled over to just three farmworkers in the United States, as far as public health authorities know. All of them have had mostly mild symptoms. But that does not guarantee that the virus, called H5N1, will remain benign if it begins to spread among people. … Since its discovery in 1996 in Hong Kong, it has also infected nearly 900 people. An older version of the virus circulating in Asia has killed about half of those infected.”[5] She adds, “Of the 15 people known to have been stricken with the version that is now circulating in cattle, one in China died and another was hospitalized. Two patients in Chile and Ecuador had severe symptoms. Four Americans — one last year and the three infected with the latest outbreak — have fared better. … The worry now is that as H5N1 continues to infect mammals and evolve, it may pick up the mutations needed to spread efficiently among people, setting off another pandemic.”


How concerned should we be? According to Gil, “A new outbreak of the [H5N1] virus was first detected in 2020 among wild birds in Europe. It has since spread to domestic poultry and occasionally mammal species, such as foxes, sea lions, and cows. In the U.S. alone, over 96 million commercial poultry and backyard birds across 48 states have been infected with the virus, according to the CDC. The USDA says cattle herds across 12 states have been affected.” We have already seen supply chain repercussions in the poultry and dairy industries. If humans are the next target, things could go south. Gil reports, “[In June], the WHO reported the first human death due to another strain of bird flu, H5N2, occurred in Mexico this May. It is currently unknown how the victim was exposed to the virus.”  Mandavilli reports, “The incubation period for flu is two to four days, and a human-to-human version could spread far before cases were detected, said Erin Sorrell, a virologist and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.” Sorrell told Mandavilli, “If it goes into the general public, it’s too late. We’ve missed the boat.”


Now is the time to plan rather than panic. Mandavilli explains, “If the virus were to spread among people, it would first have to change significantly.” Scott Hensley, an immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told her, “If this virus jumps into humans, you can bet that the HA [influenza hemagglutinin] is going to change, because right now the HA of this virus does not bind very effectively to human cells.” Taking a “wait and see” attitude is nevertheless unwise. Jennifer B. Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and the director of the Pandemic Center at the Brown University School of Public Health, explains, “Experts need to be clear that currently the levers of action are squarely in the hands of government leaders and agricultural interests, not in the hands of the general public. But public attention is crucial to ensuring that authorities find the will to act.”[6] She adds, “The virus could mutate to gain the ability to infect people more easily. Because we don’t have immunity to this virus, a version that becomes highly contagious would probably cause a new pandemic. Influenza viruses change more rapidly than others and have created four pandemics since the start of the 20th century.” She concludes, “H5N1 is enough of a risk now to warrant action, before the virus becomes a pandemic threat to America. By that point, everyone will have to worry.” Companies and individuals should encourage government leaders to take this threat seriously.


Concluding Thoughts


Even if bird flu doesn’t become the next pandemic, there are plenty of other viruses waiting in the wings to disrupt our lives and our supply chains. Journalist Frances Stead Sellers notes, “An unknown future pathogen could have far more devastating consequences than SARS-CoV-2, which cost some 7 million lives and trillions of dollars in economic losses. … [In addition,] climate change and increased interactions between human and animal populations are increasing the possibility of spillover events spawning zoonotic diseases that are all but impossible to contain given the speed of modern travel.”[7] Scenario planning can help organizations make sensible plans today for a potentially devastating pandemic that many experts predict will happen again … and again.


[1] Karen Gilchrist, “Bill Gates says Covid risks have ‘dramatically reduced’ but another pandemic is coming,” CNBC, 18 February 2022.
[2] Ruth Douglas, “Prepare For Disease Deadlier Than COVID – WHO Chief,” Eurasia Review, 5 June 2023.
[3] Bruce Gil, “The next pandemic could come from bird flu, former CDC chief says,” Quartz, 17 June 2024.
[4] John Chambers, “Coronavirus should inspire businesses to prepare their supply chains for the future,” Fortune, 12 April 2020.
[5] Apoorva Mandavilli, “A Bird-Flu Pandemic in People? Here’s What It Might Look Like.” The New York Times, 17 June 2024.
[6] Jennifer B. Nuzzo, “How Scared Should You Be of Bird Flu?” The New York Times, 19 June 2024.
[7] Frances Stead Sellers, “The pandemic cost 7 million lives, but talks to prevent a repeat stall,” The Washington Post, 21 April 2024.

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