DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- In an open expanse of desert in Dubai, seven World Health Organization workers are racing to sort, package and send out hundreds of shipments of medical supplies to countries around the world battling a new virus that has spread fast, disrupting life for millions of people.
Demand for protective medical supplies like masks, gloves and gowns is skyrocketing as the virus spreads far beyond China, where the illness originated late last year. Worldwide, some 95,000 people in about 80 countries have been infected.
The WHO team in Dubai is in charge of preparing the precious cargo of supplies, including goggles, virus testing kits and specialized face masks. Front-line medical workers around the world need these supplies to safely test and treat patients who have fallen ill and contracted the virus, which leads to an illness called COVID-19.
To put the sheer scale of demand in perspective, last year the seven-person WHO team in Dubai distributed 92 shipments to 22 nations, focusing heavily on emergency responses in places like Yemen, Syria and Iraq. It's only early March and they've already reached more than three times that number of countries. They have dispatched hundreds of shipments to help medical teams battling the virus — all while still working on emergency shipments to conflict-ridden corners of the globe.
This intense surge in demand means WHO warehouses here are running dangerously low on supplies. This is the largest operation of its kind in the world for the World Health Organization.
By next week, the global stockpile here in Dubai will be out of goggles. Any delay in the coming shipment of 2,000 goggles will lead to a delay in the shipment of packages to countries needing these supplies in bulk.
“Basically we can't run out,” said Robert Blanchard, who oversees the emergency operation in Dubai for the WHO. “We need funding and more important, we need raw materials.”
Many countries are already struggling to meet their own local demands and have started to impose restrictions on exports of face masks and other protective supplies, which impacts supplies internationally.
“Due to global shortages in the supply chain right now, we're seeing increased demand that has outstripped supplies,” Blanchard said. “We are now basically kitting them out as soon as the supplies arrive and turning those around to ship out.”
The warehouses have more than 100,000 respiratory face masks, but some countries have asked for that entire amount. The WHO also currently has some 500,000 basic surgical masks, but one hard-hit country said it needed 40 million.
Blanchard said funding for the stockpiling of emergency supplies by donor countries should not be driven by an epidemic like this because “you don't want to be procuring while in a crisis.”
From their operation in Dubai, the organization is shipping to nations as small as the Solomon Islands, as isolated as North Korea and as expansive as China.
Just this week, Blanchard and three WHO staffers in Dubai worked over the weekend to prepare a large shipment to Iran, where the virus has killed more than 100 people and infected more than 3,500. Most new virus cases reported in the Middle East also have travel links to Iran.
Blanchard said the United Arab Emirates provided a military cargo flight to carry the shipment to Iran, where all Emirati commercial flights have been suspended. A team of WHO specialists accompanied the shipment, which included 1,100 virus testing kits.
Each testing kit is in high demand. Blanchard notes he has just 52 at the moment for the entire Middle East region. Each kit can be used for 96 tests, meaning nearly 5,000 people can be tested by the current kits on reserve.
Many countries can procure their own supplies and have their own emergency stockpiles of medicine and life-saving medical equipment. The U.S., for example, has a multi-billion dollar strategic national stockpile.
But many countries too, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Ghana and as far as South America, are looking to WHO shipments to help contain the virus.
From Dubai, the WHO has shipped 35,000 face shields to China alone, where more than 80,000 cases of the virus have been reported and more than 3,000 have died.
Shipments and supplies are brought to WHO warehouses from different countries, including China, India and the U.S. Blanchard said each shipment that is sent abroad has to be signed off by the UAE's Health Ministry and checked by customs, in addition to some involvement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He said the government has been signing off on shipments quickly, usually within a day.
Blanchard said that what this outbreak shows is the importance of investing in a system with enough supplies available and ready.
“Waiting for a disease or a disaster to strike is not the time to begin trying to procure or access those supplies," he said.
Associated Press writer Fay Abuelgasim in Dubai contributed to this report.