Coronavirus: Hundreds tested as a precaution against eight confirmed cases, says Emirati health minister

Abdulrahman Al Owais briefed FNC members on tests, the latest travel advice and the decision to keep Emirates and Etihad routes open to China

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Related: Inside an Abu Dhabi clinic testing patients for coronavirus

The UAE has carried out precautionary tests on hundreds of people for coronavirus to prevent its spread, the health minister said on Tuesday.

Abdulrahman Al Owais said about 150 people were tested for each of the eight patients confirmed to ensure anyone they came into contact had not been infected.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 11, 2020.  
    H.E. Abdul Rahman Bin Mohammed Al Owais, Minister of Health and Prevention.
Victor Besa / The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Haneen Dajani
Abdullrahman Al Owais, Minister of Health and Prevention, explains why the UAE has continued to receive flights from China amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, during a Federal National Council session in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. Victor Besa / The National

In a public briefing to the Federal National Council on Tuesday, he said:

  • More than 500 staff members work round the clock on communication, medical investigations and logistical support related to combating the virus
  • 400 people on flights from China underwent mandatory checks on Monday
  • There remains a great deal of misunderstanding around the virus and Mr Al Owais urged the public not to overreact
  • Hospitals are well equipped to handle precautionary tests and confirmed cases — he personally visited pharmacies to check for stocks of masks
  • The decision to keep Emirates and Etihad routes to China open was important to ensure Chinese visitors can return home.

In other developments on Tuesday, China 'removed' several senior officials from their posts as the global death toll passed 1,000 people. The party secretary for the Hubei province health commission, which covers the outbreak city of Wuhan, and the head of the commission were both sacked.

But the daily rate of new infections appeared to have slowed, with 2,478 new cases on Monday, down from 3,062 the day before.


Mr Al Owais, whose Ministry of Health and Prevention has led the response to the virus in the Emirates, answered questions from members about the decision to keep airline routes to China open.

“Many people wondered why we haven’t stopped flights from China... and wonder would stopping flights stop China stop coronavirus from reaching the UAE? And would it stop travellers from China from arriving in the UAE? Of course not," he said.

Many Chinese passengers transit through the UAE from other countries, while others come on business and for holidays.

“And what would happen to the Chinese visitors who are already in the UAE if we were to suspend flights? How would they return?," he told members.

Mr Al Owais said the decision to keep flights to Beijing running was to ensure tourism and trade remained open. Aviation authorities told airlines, including Emirates and Etihad, to suspend routes to regional cities including Guangzhou, Shanghai and Chengdu.

"The more important thing is that the UAE is ready to accommodate the situation [of coronavirus], therefore, the decision was to reduce the number of trips, and China will remain as one of our most important political and economic allies," he said.

The minister said "many people misunderstood what WHO said regarding the issue".

"It only voiced its concerns of coronavirus reaching countries that cannot deal with it, and in the UAE we are fully capable of dealing with it and we are capable of preventing it".

Airport checks

Mr Al Owais outlined the precautions taken on flights landing on Monday.

He said “only 400 people arrived from China yesterday, and we took all the necessary precautions with regards to the passengers".

"They underwent the mandatory examination and declaration. And we are monitoring those who leave from China and arrive in the UAE.”

Emirati airports have been using thermal scanners — which can determine if a passenger has a high internal body temperature, suggesting a fever — “from the first day... and now they are being spread across other places".

Personal hygiene 

Medical advice to avoid the virus remains washing hands frequently or using hand sanitiser. Experts are divided over the effectiveness of masks and doctors said it is up to members of the public if they wish to wear one.

“People were saying there is a shortage of prevention masks and sanitisers and some medicines; the UAE has a more than enough supply," the minister said in response to questions from FNC members on Tuesday.

"Sometimes supplying certain pharmacies needs time when they run out. Before coming to the session today I passed by a pharmacy and I found enough masks there.”

He previously checked other pharmacies and they all had enough supplies, he said.

“We have a strategic supply for antiviruses, and many medical products that are used to fight coronavirus are being produced in the UAE. The UAE was one of the first countries to receive the advanced testing tools, some countries only started ordering them recently.

“So we hope that everybody will live their lives in a normal way and take care of their personal hygiene like washing their hands regularly, and to avoid congested places, not only to avoid coronavirus but all viruses.”