Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The coronavirus outbreak has already forced millions to work from home in China, and as the outbreak goes global, remote work could emerge as a vital public health strategy.

Why it matters: Businesses should be ready to "replace in-person meetings with video or telephone conferences and can increase teleworking options," Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters.

In the absence of a vaccine or an effective treatment, one of the best ways to control the spread of a new disease is through social distancing.

  • One study found that nationwide 18-day school closures in Mexico during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic was associated with a 29% to 37% reduction in flu transmission rates.
  • During the much worse 1918 flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people globally, cities that closed schools and banned public gatherings early during the epidemic had weekly death rates about 50% lower than cities that delayed such closures.

What's happening: The videoconferencing company Zoom has been one of the few stocks to rise even as fears about the coronavirus pull down the market.

  • In China, Alibaba's collaboration platform DingTalk became the most-downloaded free iOS app in the country in early February.
  • In Hong Kong, where classes are suspended until at least March 2, schools are experimenting with creating an interactive educational experience for homebound students using Zoom, according to the South China Morning Post.
  • For some companies, telework may prove a boon — a 2015 Stanford University study found that productivity among call-center employees at one Chinese travel agency increased by 13% when they worked from home.
"The combination of limiting travel due to coronavirus fears and the desire to lower carbon footprints tells me that we may have reached videoconferencing’s moment."
— Union Square Ventures co-founder Fred Wilson

But, but, but: Not every business can easily operate remotely.

  • Apple has warned investors it expects to fall short of its revenue goals as its China factories slowly reopen after forced closures.
  • Worse is the possibility that the coronavirus could disrupt the global supply chains that produce the medicines and protective gear needed to combat the outbreak itself.

As the coronavirus spreads around the world, it's inevitable that we'll see more office closures. If employees can't work remotely, the economic effects of the virus could rival the human toll.

  • SARS killed fewer than 1,000 people, but travel and trade disruptions cost the global economy an estimated $40 billion.
  • The coronavirus has already infected and killed far more people than SARS, and it's brought a far more important China to a standstill. Analysts at Oxford Economics estimate that an international coronavirus outbreak could cost the global economy more than $1 trillion.

The bottom line: Investing in resilient remote work infrastructure can soften the economic blow of a pandemic, says David Henshall, CEO of the remote work company Citrix. "This is where remote work can stand up to the challenge."

Editor's note: This piece has been updated to clarify Citrix is a remote work company.

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

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