Las Vegas
In mid-April, Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed gave the state more than 200,000 test kits, with the aim of easing shortages. Image Credit: Reuters

Las Vegas: One of the biggest COVID-19 testing sites in the US state of Nevada has opened in Las Vegas - and that would not have been possible without the donation of more than 200,000 test kits, worth as much as $20 million, from the UAE, the Los Angeles Times reported.

According to the paper, within weeks of the coronavirus reaching Las Vegas, members of the public were clamouring to be tested, and hospitals and laboratories were running out of supplies. Nasal swabs were so difficult to come by that some clinics closed, and state officials called on the federal government for help.

Help did arrive, but the intervention that changed the state’s fortunes was a large donation from His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, according to members of Nevada’s COVID-19 Response, Relief and Recovery Task Force, a group of business leaders supporting the state’s recovery.

Quick realisation

Jim Murren, the former chief executive of MGM, who chairs the task force, told the paper that the gift was the result of discussions with G42, an Emirati artificial intelligence and cloud-computing company. Although talks initially centered on how to bring back concerts and sports events to Las Vegas during the epidemic, Murren said his counterparts in the UAE quickly realised Nevada didn’t have enough test supplies to help stem the spread of the disease.

At the time, the state could only manage to test hundreds, not thousands, of people daily. Those who did get tested endured lengthy wait times for results as their samples were shipped out of state to private labs in California or Arizona that could take as long as two weeks to deliver an answer. By the time state health officials learned someone had tested positive, it was too late to prevent them from spreading the virus.

“It really defeated the purpose from a public health standpoint,” said Dr. Luis Medina-Garcia, an infectious disease specialist at University Medical Centre of Southern Nevada, told Los Angeles Times. 

In mid-April, Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed gave the state more than 200,000 test kits, with the aim of easing shortages.

“Without the connection with the UAE, we might be in a different place,” Murren said. “It really gave University Medical Centre a real shot in the arm.”

He estimated the value of the country’s donation in the range of $15 million to $20 million.

“Testing is an economic imperative,” Murren said. “I don’t think we could possibly sustainably reopen an economy anywhere - certainly not in a tourist-based economy like Nevada’s - unless we can improve consumer confidence.”

Nevada has received money and supplies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency but nothing that approaches the scale or the speed of the UAE donation. According to state health officials, FEMA has equipped Nevada with 26,000 testing swabs and 25,600 testing transport components. More supplies are on the way, officials said, but the shipments haven’t arrived.

Public health experts, who praised the UAE donation, said it was also an indictment of the US government’s halting response.

The UAE donation “is reflective of the failure of the federal government to step up to its responsibility to make sure that in a time of scarcity every community gets the resources they need to respond to this pandemic,” said Jeffrey Levi, a professor of health policy at George Washington University.

“Good for Las Vegas that they have been able to find these resources,” Levi added, “but communities that don’t have these kinds of contacts should not be placed at greater risk because of that.”

Running out of swabs

Medina-Garcia said that, at the very beginning of the outbreak, University Medical Centre was testing fewer than a hundred people each day and had only a few machines that could process samples. When it nearly ran out of swabs, it continued to test patients by drawing on donated supplies from UAE.

The medical centre is now capable of administering 5,000 tests daily and is expected to double that number by June, when several of Las Vegas’ largest casinos are hoping to reopen.

“I think we wouldn’t be where we are if we didn’t have those partners helping everybody out,” Medina-Garcia said. “When you’re not able to provide a service to the community because you don’t have a nasal swab, it doesn’t matter if you have the best of the infrastructure in place. You can’t move forward.”