Companies around the world have collectively committed billions of dollars to help communities and health organizations combat the new coronavirus, but the pandemic is uncharted territory for most business leaders. And while the scope and scale of the coronavirus threat is unlike any we've seen before, global technology firm Intel was perhaps more prepared than most, thanks to a forward-thinking decision made nearly 20 years ago and investment that's continued to this day.
The tech giant created an in-house Pandemic Response Team amidst the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in China in 2002, which ultimately sickened more than 8,000 people across 26 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The response team began as an informal group of executives, who coordinated efforts to protect employees and customers while supporting health agencies in the fight against SARS, but it soon evolved into a standing team within the company.
This group went on to lead Intel's response to other pandemics including the Avian Flu, Ebola and, now, the new coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. "When all this started happening, we were really able to activate that group and activate the learnings from past pandemics," said Suzanne Fallender, Intel's director of corporate responsibility.
During a webcast this week hosted by Susan McPherson of the corporate responsibility consultancy McPherson Strategies, Fallender went on to explain Intel's response and what can be learned from it.
Intel's Pandemic Response Team is tasked with a multifaceted approach to guide the company during global or regional health crises. This includes standardized health and safety practices to protect workers, business continuity planning, and the development of staggered deployment strategies based on risk and need.
The group has longstanding partnerships with local governments and public health organizations such as the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which they lean on for advice in developing response plans when needed.
In the case of the new coronavirus — which, unlike SARS before it, spread quickly to nearly every country around the world — Intel's response extended to its more than 100,000 employees across 60 countries, as well as supply-chain partners on nearly every continent. "We work with such large global supply chains, so we've connected with our suppliers from the beginning to help them protect their employees and also make sure that we could help when they needed support," Fallender said.
The Pandemic Response Team also worked with Intel's existing community partners to deploy $10 million in immediate funding for food security, housing and small business relief. And it collected 1 million pieces of protective equipment, including masks and gloves, from its own factory and emergency supplies for donation to frontline healthcare workers.
"We have a history of partnering with local communities already through the Intel Foundation and through corporate programs, so we worked with those community partners" on the initial response, Fallender said. "Then we took a step back. We’re going to continue to support these communities, but where can Intel have a real impact in this moving forward? It really came down to technology."
(Image: Healthcare providers at Houston Methodist Hospital can monitor multiple patients in real time with the help of technology provided by Medical Informatics Corp. in partnership with Intel.)
Intel created a pandemic response technology initiative to help essential organizations complete their work and aid individuals facing a new normal. "We were seeing healthcare workers and hospitals struggle to have the technology they needed, researchers trying to quickly work on this, and all the students who could not continue to learn online because they didn't have access to technology," Fallender said.
Of the $50 million committed to the initiative, the bulk will leverage advanced technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and high-performance computing to advance diagnosis, treatment and vaccine development, according to Intel. This includes getting technology into hospitals faster for testing and treatment of COVID-19. The funds will also support education-focused nonprofits and public school districts as they work to get technology into the hands of students suddenly learning from home.
A dedicated innovation fund of $10 million will back partner- and employee-led projects to assist their own communities, including an expanded testing program in India, a ventilator initiative in the U.K., and a "virtual ICU" system that allows U.S. health workers to monitor COVID-19 patients from a distance, reducing their risk of exposure and expanding their care capacity.
"We hope that by sharing our expertise, resources and technology, we can help to accelerate work that saves lives and expands access to critical services around the world during this challenging time,” Intel CEO Bob Swan said in a statement announcing the initiative.
On top of more than $60 million in cash and products donated to fight COVID-19, Intel has committed more than $100 million in additional benefits and compensation for its employees on the front lines. While the majority of Intel's staff can work from home, the company also relies on on-site employees in manufacturing plants and labs to power its technology response initiative.
"First and foremost, we've been focused on the health and safety of our employees, particularly those who continue to work onsite in our factories and our labs," Fallender said. "Intel technology is in over 95 percent of the world's internet communications and government infrastructure, so we've really worked hard to make sure we can safely continue to operate and to provide that essential technology that's used in hospitals and in supporting the economy."
Knowing they have the support they need, including benefits, protective equipment and safety practices that ensure social distancing, Intel employees have responded in kind. "It's been one of the hardest times I've ever worked at Intel, but it's also been one of the most special times, particularly because of what some of these employees have been doing," Fallender told attendees during McPherson's webcast. "People have, on top of doing their jobs and homeschooling their kids, jumped in to bring others together."
This includes a group of Arizona employees who are 3D-printing face shields for first responders and vulnerable communities, including the local Navajo Nation which has been especially hard hit by the pandemic. After hearing that senior neighbors weren't able to connect with their families during Passover because they didn't understand video conferencing technologies, another team in Israel created a one-click conferencing system to bring families together around the table. Fallender herself is sewing face masks in her spare time.
Overall, Intel's top corporate responsibility executive said she is encouraged by the leadership she's seeing, both within Intel and more broadly, in the face of the pandemic. "It’s shown organizations can come together in this crisis and in urgency around an issue — and there are many other urgent issues that we face, so I am more hopeful in that standpoint," she said. "Some companies are going to be challenged to be able to do things, but I think there are many others that can continue to look at how to really engage."