The closed Caesars Palace Las Vegas Hotel and Casino sign is seen illuminated as the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, on the Las Vegas strip.

COVID-19: The latest from The World

Las Vegas gets a boost for coronavirus testing from the United Arab Emirates

Like many US states, Nevada was struggling to test residents when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Eventually, help did arrive — from an AI company in the UAE. 

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The closed Caesars Palace Las Vegas Hotel and Casino sign is seen illuminated as the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, on the Las Vegas strip in Las Vegas, April 10, 2020.

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Shannon Stapleton/Reuters 

In late March, Jim Murren, the head of Nevada’s coronavirus task force, was on a conference call that made one thing clear: Las Vegas was not ready to reopen.

He, along with scientists from the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada and several doctors, and representatives from G42, an artificial intelligence company based in the United Arab Emirates, discussed health infrastructure needed for reopening large-scale facilities like arenas, stadiums and convention centers. 

“[G42 representatives] asked UMC how many tests they were doing a day at this lab that UMC had, and they said, ‘We’re doing 100 tests a day.’ There was a stunned silence for about 30 seconds.”

Jim Murren, Nevada coronavirus task force

“[G42 representatives] asked UMC how many tests they were doing a day at this lab that UMC had,” Murren said, “and they said, ‘We’re doing 100 tests a day.’ There was a stunned silence for about 30 seconds.”

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The city’s testing capacity was inadequate. The few tests that Nevada was doing took days to process because samples had to be shipped to California or Arizona to be analyzed.

Fast-forward to today: Las Vegas is rolling out phase two of its reopening. The convention and visitors authority put out an ad promoting tourism to the state. Las Vegas is in a position to do so thanks in large part to a big boost that came from abroad after that eye-opening conference call: G42 donated 200,000 test kits for the coronavirus and other medical supplies to Nevada — an estimated $20 million worth of equipment.

“They were shipped on dry ice because they have to stay at a certain temperature and they were received at the airport in refrigerated trucks,” Murren said. 

The story of how an Emirati company wound up on that late-March conference call in the first place goes back to the days when Murren was the chief executive at MGM. Murren worked for the company for 22 years and made connections with business leaders all over, including some in the UAE.

“The UAE and Las Vegas have a shared history that goes back a couple of decades.”

Jim Murren, Nevada coronavirus task force

“The UAE and Las Vegas have a shared history that goes back a couple of decades,” he explained.

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As the head of MGM, Murren wanted to expand the company in the Emirates. The Emiratis wanted to invest in Las Vegas as part of their plans to diversify their economy. In 2007, Dubai World, a government-owned company, partnered with MGM in a project called City Center. It was a multibillion-dollar entertainment complex on the Las Vegas Strip.

That’s why, when the pandemic hit earlier this year, the UAE was concerned about the city’s reopening, too. In mid-April, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, sent help to Nevada by way of G42.

Emma Soubrier, visiting scholar at The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said that the UAE has been expanding its humanitarian aid.

“And it has been specifically important in their soft power strategy,” she said.

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Since the pandemic hit, Soubrier added, the UAE has sent help to dozens of countries such as Greece, Belarus, Montenegro, Romania, and others.

At home, the UAE has done well when it comes to testing and contact tracing, she said. But the country has also faced some scrutiny over the way it has treated its thousands of migrant workers.

Last month, a group of 16 nongovernmental organizations and trade unions sent a letter to officials in the UAE asking them to protect workers from the coronavirus. Workers in Persian Gulf countries often have to live in overcrowded camps with limited sanitation.

Throughout the pandemic, many US states have scrambled to get supplies like test kits, personal protective gear and ventilators from foreign countries, explained Jeffrey Levi, professor of health management and policy at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University.

“The way we should be dealing with a pandemic is that the federal government leads, and the federal government has failed in that. And failed in it dramatically.”

Jeffrey Levi, The George Washington University

“The way we should be dealing with a pandemic,” he said, “is that the federal government leads, and the federal government has failed in that. And failed in it dramatically.”

G42’s donation to Nevada was significant.

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Brian Labus, who teaches at the University of Nevada Las Vegas School of Public Health, says more tests mean better chances at controlling the coronavirus outbreak.

“Any way we can get more kits, it’s going to make testing easier for our population,” Labus said. “So, wherever those kits can come from will absolutely help our ability to understand what is happening here in Las Vegas.”

As Las Vegas reopens, Labus is watching closely: “The challenge is it takes time for people to get sick and get tested and show up in our data. So, it’ll be some time before we know what the true effects of these openings are.” 

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