The 517th birthday of Michelangelo came and went yesterday and the computer world survived.

The data-devouring computer virus that bears the name of the great Renaissance artist had created an international scare as its March 6 activation date drew near. But yesterday it struck only in a smattering of homes and businesses in the United States and foreign countries.

Computer specialists credited the relatively light damage to heavy-duty publicity about its ability to wipe out all the data stored on a computer.

Many analysts suggested that the publicity had instilled a healthy fear in millions of computer users who had paid no attention to viruses.

Others worried that it would give new encouragement to the computer subculture from which viruses emerge.

Viruses are computer programs that spread through telephone lines or exchanged floppy disks. After entering a computer, they can display whimsical messages or pictures, or savage whatever data is found.

Virus expert John McAfee said that most activations in the United States occurred at small businesses, generally disabling one or two machines per location. He estimated that about 1,000 companies were hit, which would be only a fraction of the roughly 47 million machines in the country.

Reports now suggest that the virus never numbered in the millions, as some computer experts estimated in recent weeks.

But where it did strike, the results were in many cases devastating.

At Cetrom Consulting Engineering Inc., a small firm in Gaithersburg, office manager Ruth Poulin this morning routinely switched on the firm's two computers and was shocked to see that within minutes all the data stored on them had been obliterated -- payroll accounts, contracts, letters, several software programs.

"If I start crying ...," Poulin said as she explained the task to reconstruct information that is crucial to her firm's operation. She said she will have to dig through stacks of paper invoices and time sheets to reenter the data.

However, in this and other cases, it was not possible to positively verify the virus's role. That further complicated the task of gauging the virus's overall impact, because Michelangelo was blamed for ordinary mechanical failures or the mistaken destruction of data by computer operators.

Elsewhere in the area, the University of Maryland reported three cases of machines crashing, apparently due to the virus. Kaplan Sutton & Associates, a small firm in Columbia, Md., said its one computer had been hit as well.

News agencies and computer experts reported scattered incidents of the virus hitting in Germany, Britain, Egypt, China, Japan and Australia. News reports said that South Africa, where publicity of the virus's danger was relatively low, had an unusually high number of activations.

Most large organizations, however, reported smooth sailing.

Among the institutions that removed the virus in time were the House of Representatives, Potomac Electric Power Co., the Central Intelligence Agency and Bell Atlantic Corp.

Staff writers Liz Spayd and Charles Hall contributed to this report.