The US Financial Services Sector Coordinating Council has issued a paper warning banks that their current business continuity measures may not be adequate for dealing with a widespread outbreak of bird flu.
The council says a possible avian influenza pandemic poses a "unique threat" to the industry and is calling on banks to re-examine current contingency plans.
The FSSCC says bird flu could cause problems for the industry that are distinct from the issues posed by disruptions associated with natural disasters or deliberate malicious activity. For example, a widespread bird flu epidemic is likely to affect multiple regions of the country and the world at the same time, so the backup facilities that banks have established - even remote sites hundreds of miles distant from primary facilities - may be just as afflicted as primary locations.
Furthermore, a serious avian flu outbreak could erupt in waves over weeks or months, so firms may have to deal with high levels of absenteeism for a long period of time.
Donald Donahue, chairman of the FSSCC and sector coordinator for banking and finance stresses that, at this time, a bird flu epidemic remains a possibility, not a fact, but says that continuity planning needs to encompass the long-term and large-scale disruptions that an outbreak.
"While we do not want to create a sense of panic, FSSCC believes that heightened awareness and preparation is a prudent course for us to take," says Donahue.
The FSCC paper calls on banks to re-evaluate their business continuity procedures, and says any review should include factors such as the splitting and segregating of critical staff into separate offices or locations, expanded telecommuting, and the use of teleconferencing and videoconferencing to avoid travel and the need for face-to-face meetings.
The move follows reports last week that the UK's Financial Services Authority (FSA) is to urge banks and businesses in the City to devise contingency plans to deal with a possible bird flu pandemic in its annual Financial Risk Outlook report.
Some banks are already drawing up contigency plans to deal with possible high levels of absenteeism in the event of a global pandemic. HSBC has said it estimates that up to half of its global staff could be affected, although this estimate is higher than official forecasts. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is expected to advise companies to plan for 25% absence.