WASHINGTON - One of the largest mass coronavirus testing sites in Nevada has opened in Las Vegas, a move that puts the city one step closer to reopening its economy. And it might not have been possible without the donation of more than 200,000 test kits, worth as much as $20 million, from the United Arab Emirates.
Within weeks of the coronavirus reaching Las Vegas, members of the public were clamoring 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 in Las Vegas. Supply chains eased, allowing hospitals to buy more tests, and aid trickled in from Washington.
But the intervention that changed the state's fortunes was a large donation from Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and ruler of the United Arab Emirates, according to members of Nevada's COVID-19 Response, Relief and Recovery Task Force, a group of business leaders supporting the state's recovery.
Jim Murren, the former chief executive of MGM, who chairs the task force, said 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 United Arab Emirates quickly realized 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 Center of Southern Nevada.
In mid-April, Prince Mohammed, or MbZ, as he's commonly known, gave the state more than 200,000 test kits, with the aim of easing shortages and accelerating Nevada's timeline for reopening its economy.
"Without the connection with the U.A.E., we might be in a different place," Murren said. "It really gave University Medical Center a real shot in the arm."
He estimated the value of the country's donation in the range of $15 million to $20 million.
In addition to offering humanitarian relief, the United Arab Emirates has a financial interest in seeing Vegas come back to life. Dubai World, the state-controlled investment vehicle of Dubai, owns half of the sprawling CityCenter complex, which when it opened in 2009 on the Strip was the largest and most expensive private development in the city.
As of last week, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak has allowed hair salons, restaurants, outdoor malls, retailers and barbershops to reopen with strict social-distancing requirements. But the core of the state's economy - the casinos, nightclubs, spas and lounges that make Vegas an international destination - have been closed since mid-March.
"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 United Arab Emirates' 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.
For Murren and others on the task force, the United Arab Emirates' gift is a sign of the relationships Vegas business leaders have cultivated overseas. But public health experts, who praised the donation, said it was also an indictment of the U.S. government's halting response.