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One Million Tests: UAE Ahead of the Game
Fine china, linen table cloths – and serum testing for coronavirus. Perhaps it’s now really worth flying Emirates. (Wikimedia Commons)

One Million Tests: UAE Ahead of the Game

Public health experts praise the Gulf state for its screenings and note that serum testing can now be added to the list of one airline’s tip-top services

The government of the United Arab Emirates this weekend announced that it had conducted more than a million tests for the novel coronavirus, reaching a total of 1,022,326 screenings.

A relatively small population of nearly 10 million, combined with substantial financial resources (a gross domestic product of $425 billion in 2019) and strong state capacity, has enabled the country to rapidly expand testing, according to Dr. Robert C. Mogielnicki, resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“The United Arab Emirates is clearly taking seriously those steps beyond restrictions on movement to help curb the spread of COVID-19, and preparing for a gradual resumption of economic activities,” Mogielnicki told The Media Line via email.

The number of confirmed cases in the UAE as of Monday stood at 10,349, with 76 deaths and 1,978 recoveries, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker.

Public health experts are keeping a close eye on testing developments in the UAE.

“I praise the United Arab Emirates. This is the best thing to do – to test every part of the population and to keep social distancing. This is the right attitude and they are doing it excellently,” Mordechai Shani, professor of health care systems at Tel Aviv University and a former director-general of the Sheba Medical Center near the city, told The Media Line.

Dubai-based Gulf News reported that in announcing the testing figures at Saturday’s news conference, Dr. Abdul Rahman bin Mohammad bin Nasser Al Owais, minister of health and prevention, attributed the large number of tests administered to “tireless efforts made 24/7 by dedicated medical teams.”

While also praising the UAE’s testing regime, Gabriel Barbash, professor of epidemiology and preventative medicine at the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University, had another possible explanation for the high number of tests.

“The issue there … is that they have a lot of foreign workers. …” Barbash told The Media Line. “That is the main problem and that is why they are doing so many tests. I would be wondering how many of the sick patients are UAE residents and how many of them are work immigrants.”

Millions of migrant workers who came mostly from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh live in cramped residential districts or labor camps susceptible to the rapid spread of the coronavirus. According to the International Labor Organization, foreign nationals make up more than 80% of the UAE’s residents.

The country’s overall success in combating coronavirus depends on ensuring the safety of the foreign residents, Mogielnicki emphasized, predicting that officials would likely increase testing and monitoring protocols for the migrant worker population.

Al Owais said that the UAE had set up more than 14 drive-through test centers. This is in addition to walk-in centers such as a large tent at the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi hospital, where more than 800 people, many of them migrant workers, are tested daily.

The tests are free for UAE citizens and residents who display certain symptoms, have traveled or come in contact with people confirmed to have been infected. Otherwise, the cost for the test is 370 dirham, the equivalent of about $100.

Nasal swab testing is being used in the UAE to provide quick results for knowing whether quarantine is required. However, the Dubai-based airline Emirates has been administering blood tests before flights at Dubai International Airport.

The Dubai Health Authority is conducting the Emirates tests. The airline claims to be the first to provide rapid blood tests.

According to Barbash, there is a big difference between a swab and a serology test.

“Two tests have different purposes,” said Barbash. “If you need to test the population now, you need to have the swab test. If you want to know the bigger picture and understand who is immune and what is the prevalence of infection in the population – the true prevalence, those who are symptomatic and asymptomatic – you do the serology test.”

While there are different approaches to the types of testing being administered, there is consensus on the need for robust capacity, according to Mogielnicki.

“Although emirate-level governments sometimes disagree over policy, much of the country seems to be on board with the need to expand tests and closely monitor the spread of the novel coronavirus,” he stated.

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