Rogue variants and virus ‘vortexes’ keep Dubai Expo planners on edge


People walk past the official sign marking the Dubai Expo 2020 near the Sustainability Pavilion in Dubai on January 16, 2021. – The six-month world fair, a milestone for the emirate which has splashed out $8.2 billion on the eye-popping venue in the hope of boosting its soft power and resetting the economy, will now open its doors in October 2021.

KARIM SAHIB | AFP | Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Rogue virus variants, the global vaccine rollout and international travel restrictions are being closely monitored as Expo 2020 Dubai draws close.

The in-person mega event, likely the largest ever staged in the Arab world, has cost billions and taken more than a decade to plan. It’s now scheduled to go ahead on October 1, a year after it was postponed by the pandemic. 

“Here in the UAE, we are optimistic, but we are realistic and we are practical,” UAE Minister of State and Expo 2020 Dubai Director-General Reem Al Hashimy told CNBC on Tuesday.

“We’re hopeful in the next five months, we’re going to see a better and a stronger overall picture,” Al Hashimy said. “We may still end up with vortexes here and there that still remain difficult, but by and large, we’re hoping for more of a recovery.”

More cases of COVID-19 have been reported globally in the past two weeks than during the first six months of the pandemic, even as global vaccinations ramp up. India is grappling with a lethal third wave, and rogue variants of the virus – such as strains first detected in South Africa and the U.K – could still pose a significant risk. 

A World Health Organization (WHO) advisory group also said it found “evidence gaps” in how the Sinopharm vaccine, which has been widely rolled out across the UAE, protects against “variants of concern” as well as the duration of its protection, and the need for booster doses.

The UAE sits near the top of the global vaccination league tables, and virus cases have stabilized in recent months at roughly 2,000 registered new infections per day. A decision on Sinopharm’s WHO emergency use approval is due in the coming days. 

Organizers still aim to attract 25 million visits to the Expo site, hoping residents and curious pandemic-era travelers will fill the mostly empty car parks and cavernous buildings that cover the expansive Expo site on Dubai’s desert fringe. 

“Across the 182 days, we remain confident that we will be able to attract that number,” Al Hashimy said, adding that regular tourists will not need a vaccination to attend, at least for now.

“We’re trying to do this responsibly, so we have masks and social distancing in place, and everyone gets tested before coming in,” she added. 

Travel ban watch

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister and ruler of Dubai, convened the final international participants meeting for Dubai Expo 2020 on Tuesday. “We are ready to welcome 190 countries to the World’s Greatest Event,” he said in a tweet. 

But five months out, target countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom are still banning or restricting travel to the Emirates. Al Hashimy said the situation was “fluid” and the UAE was working to alleviate issues of concern in the coming weeks and months. 

“We’re in regular conversations with them to understand how we can change the current trajectory,” Al Hashimy said when asked about the travel restrictions that could impact attendance.

“I cannot wait to see the travel restrictions lifted, but we have to be sure that we can lift them without risks to the health of all citizens,” EU Ambassador to the UAE Andrea Mattero Fontana told CNBC on Tuesday.

While much of the EU also remains locked, a plan to ease restrictions over the summer for travelers who have been fully inoculated with shots approved by the European Union is under active consideration. “If we continue to roll out this program of the distribution of the vaccines in the coming months, then five months down the road, we’re going to be in a much better situation,” Fontana added.

Other countries with a full travel ban, including Australia, pointed to a virtual alternative. 

“If people can’t travel, they’ll be able to attend virtual events, and it will also draw on a whole range of Australians who don’t reside in Australia who can still come into Dubai,” Justin McGowan, Australian Commissioner General for Dubai Expo 2020, told CNBC. 

“That’s the harsh reality of the COVID pandemic,” Al Hashimy said. “We hoped it would finish or fizzle out, but it’s actually going to be here for a while.”

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