U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt opened the summit with a simple message for business leaders: Prepare for a pandemic now, because any preparations made after a pandemic hits will be inadequate.
"There are times in life that we plan for things because we know they will happen. There are other times we plan because if something were to happen and we hadn't planned for it, the effects would be so profound that history would simply be changed. A pandemic, in many ways, is both," Leavitt said.
Leavitt told the audience that pandemics have occurred 10 times in the past 300 years. Three of those pandemics happened in the past century, including the devastating flu pandemic of 1918 that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.
Leavitt says pandemics reshape nations, prosperity and politics. And he says American citizens and businesses need to realize that they have to do their part to prepare.
"I need to say with a clear and unwavering voice that any community that fails to prepare, with the expectation that somehow the federal government will have the resources to ride in and save the day, will be sorely disappointed," said Leavitt.
Leavitt was the first of many speakers with sobering messages. Sherry Cooper, vice president of Harris Bank and BMO Financial Group in Toronto, Canada, told the audience that a pandemic will be devastating to the global economy.
Any community that fails to prepare, with the expectation that somehow the federal government will have the resources to ride in and save the day, will be sorely disappointed.
She pointed to the SARS epidemic that hit parts of Asia and Canada in 2003, that virtually shut down Toronto despite the fact that only 44 people in that city died from the disease.
"Convention Center was empty, conferences cancelled, all public gatherings stopped. This was of serious impact," said Cooper. "In fact, many people misunderstood the warning from the World Health Organization and refused to travel to anywhere in Canada, not just Toronto."
These messages were not new to most of the people attending the conference. Anne Marie Kappel, vice president of the World Shipping Council based in Washington, D.C., says her industry has been thinking about this issue for some time.
Kappel says a pandemic would definitely impact shipping, particularly overseas shipping which could be shut down for weeks or months. But she says many businesses who depending on shipping don't realize that yet.
"Which is part of the difficulty that you'll hear referred to a lot in the whole just-in-time environment, because ... businesses today are not ready, necessarily, for that breakdown in any capacity," said Kappel.
Kappel says her industry is also trying to figure out how it would find enough health replacements if a lot of shipping workers got sick.
Eric Beck, a contingency planner with Deloitte and Touche says that's a concern for most of his clients.
"Part of what we're learning here is how serious the potential impact could be. The probability might be low, but the potential is huge in terms of the overall impact," said Beck. "And it could very well be that the companies that are better prepared to deal with this after the fact are the ones that end up having the long-term competitive advantage."
The two-day national summit continues Wednesday. It's being hosted by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.