‘A wing and a prayer’ – The inside story of Cayman’s Korea deal

The story of how 165,000 coronavirus test kits got to the island is both global in scope and uniquely Caymanian in nature.

It was a deal a country the size of the Cayman Islands should never have been able to pull off.

Moving 165,000 COVID-19 test kits halfway around the globe at a time when world travel is paralysed and more powerful countries are scrambling for access to a diminishing global stock of medical supplies should have been impossible.

But the kits arrived, packed in dry ice on a specially chartered Gulfstream V jet that touched down at Grand Cayman’s empty international airport Wednesday morning. 

Later the same afternoon Premier Alden McLaughlin and Governor Martyn Roper were able to announce a “game-changing” development in the fight against coronavirus. The island would begin a strategy of widespread testing that could ultimately save hundreds of lives.

The story of how the deal came together is both international and uniquely Caymanian. It involves the initiative and family connections of a local businessman, a little ‘Caymanian sweet talk’ from a former Olympic cyclist and access, through the UK, to one of the largest diplomatic networks in the world. 

“To make a US$4.4 million order, with a company you have never heard of on the other side of the world in the middle of a global crisis? This was a big gamble with a lot of money,” says Matthew Forbes, head of the Governor’s Office in Cayman.

“It was a wing and a prayer, but it came off.”

The Mexico connection

The story begins in Mexico City with Fernando Jose Nicholson Leos, a councilman for the municipality of Magdalena Contreras – one of 16 administrative boroughs in North America’s largest metropolis.

Fernando Jose Nicholson Leos and his family in Mexico.

Nicholson Leos was born and bred in Mexico but his Caymanian roots run deep. When he last visited the island in 2011, he remembers that strangers would recognise him instantly as ‘Mable’s Mexican grandson’.

It was his grandparents Randolph and Mable Nicholson, of West Bay, both now in their 90s, that he first thought of, when he was approached by a Korean-born businesswoman looking for his help to get official approval to sell half-a-million COVID-19 testing kits to the Mexican government.

That wasn’t something he could assist with. Mexico has the bargaining power to deal directly with suppliers and negotiate huge orders at lower prices.

But it occurred to him that smaller island territories, like Cayman, would not have the same advantages. 

He realised Cayman and its people, including a long list of elderly relatives, particularly vulnerable to the highly contagious virus, could be at risk if the islands’ health authorities could not test more widely.

A call to a cousin in Cayman

Nicholson Leos put a call in to his closest cousin, Vernie Coe, an anti-money laundering compliance officer, with Knighthead Annuity and Life Assurance in Grand Cayman.

Vernie Coe

Together they negotiated a deal to bring 200,000 test kits to Cayman at a price that seemed almost too good to be true.

“It was the deal of a lifetime,” said Nicholson Leos.

The normal minimum shipment was for 500,000 kits, but they were able to barter for a smaller amount.

“We figured with 200,000 tests we would have more than enough, without sounding too insignificant,” said Coe.  

“All of our due diligence checked clean and we were confident we could do business.”

The next step was to bring the deal to the government.

Coe looped in Craig Merren, a member of the Progressives executive board, and someone who he knew had strong political contacts.

Merren sent a WhatsApp to Health Minister Dwayne Seymour and within hours the team found themselves laying out the details of the plan to the country’s senior public health officials.

“None of it would have happened if Minister Seymour had not had that trust in Craig and put us directly in touch with his top advisors,” said Coe.

Health Minister Dwayne Seymour

Things moved swiftly from there. Within three days of the initial contact with government, the order was ready to be placed.

“Lizzette Yearwood, Dawn Cummings and the entire team at the HSA were absolutely amazing,” said Coe.

He added, “To have everything get to that stage that quickly … it never happens.”

A bump in the road

Just when it seemed everything was ready to go, the Cayman contingent hit a snag.
“When we moved to initiate the order [with the Korean supplier], as previously mandated, we met with resistance,” said Coe. “We quickly recognised something had gone wrong.”

According to Nicholson Leos, his contact in Mexico, a regional sales representative for the Korean biotech company, had misquoted the cost. The supplier was not prepared to honour the original terms and was now insisting on a minimum order of 500,000 units at a significantly higher price.

At this point, the intervention of Merren may have been pivotal.

Craig Merren, centre, collecting a National Heroes Day award for his cycling career in January 2018.

“I said let’s call them up, let’s establish that personal connection and get them to take this little country of 60,000 people seriously,” said Merren, a former international cyclist who competed for Cayman at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

“I got the manufacturer on the phone and I said, ‘Annyeong Haseyo’?”

It was the only Korean he could remember but he believes being able to say, ‘hello, how are you?’ and talk about how he had fallen in love with the country during his month-long visit as an Olympian, helped get them back to the negotiating table.

“I used a little bit of my natural boastiness on them,” he said,

“I showed a little bit of respect and used a bit of Caymanian sweet talk. I think he heard in my voice that I meant well and was trying to do the right thing,” he said.

A compromise was reached and the deal was back on. The Koreans agreed to sell 200,000 tests at the lowest unit price of $22 per kit. 

It was still a significantly more expensive proposition than any of the men had initially envisaged. By now, it was clear that this would be a multi-million-dollar deal with logistics and transport costs that would require technical expertise and connections to get over the line.

Anxious to ensure it went through and reluctant to involve a middleman, who might seek to profit from the venture, they deferred to the expertise of the Governor’s Office.

A $4.4 million gamble

Forbes, in the Governor’s Office, had been pulling late-night shifts for weeks, working to organise the UK airbridge and leverage contacts in Asia to bring much-needed medical supplies to Cayman. 

Tapping into the UK’s vast network of embassies and trade delegations, Forbes had made promising connections all over the world but was battling the realities of global shortages and a chain of unreliable manufacturers and middlemen trying to make a fast buck in the midst of the global chaos.

Matthew Forbes

When the Korea deal reached his desk, via Dr. John Lee, Cayman’s chief medical officer, he sensed opportunity but he also sensed risk.

A $4.4 million order involving payment upfront to a company one has never done business with before is not the sort of thing governments normally do. 

But these are not ordinary times.

“The days we live in at the moment, it is time for taking risks,” said Forbes, who heads up the governor’s staff in Cayman.

“The longer we leave it, the harder it becomes to get (medical supplies to fight COVID-19).”

Widespread testing has proven a successful strategy in containing the spread of the virus in several countries, and Cayman was already running low on capacity. It was a gamble worth taking.

Diplomatic links

Coe and his team had set up the deal, but the clout of the Governor’s Office, and particularly the UK’s trade delegation on the ground in Seoul, helped move the order to the front of the line.

The UK trade team was able to verify the credibility of the Korean bio-med company and the decision went up the chain to Governor Roper and Premier McLaughlin.

Government had already reached out to philanthropist Susan Olde, who had offered to cover half of the cost. 

Roper and McLaughlin gave the green light and the Ministry of Finance wired the full $4.4 million payment within 24 hours.

Simon Watson, the commanding officer of Cayman’s fledgling military regiment, got to work on logistics.

His employer, Dart Enterprises, agreed to fund a private aircraft to bring the supplies to Cayman.

The British Embassy made a link with a ground-handling firm that could transport the test kits to Incheon International Airport on the outskirts of the Korean capital.

Everything was in place. The plane would take off from Seoul on Tuesday and fly east to Alaska, where it would refuel before crossing the American continent to touch down in Cayman on Wednesday morning.

A tracking system shows the flight path of the Gulfstream V aircraft.

A message in the middle of the night

There was to be one final twist.

At around 6am local time in Cayman, Forbes’ phone pinged with a message from Seoul.

There was not enough room to fit the 200,000 test kits on the plane. 

The tests, which contain chemical compounds that need to be kept at -20C, were packed in dry-ice that would maintain that temperature for up to six days. 

The clock was ticking and a decision had to be made on whether to take off leaving just less than a quarter of the cargo – around $1 million of hi-tech medical kit – slowly melting in an airport in Korea.

“We had 165,000 kits. It was more than we needed, so we let the plane go,” said Forbes.

The balance of the order was ultimately able to be kept in cold storage and shipped as cargo on one of the last British Airways flights out of South Korea. It has since been offered to Bermuda, a sister Overseas Territory fighting its own battle with coronavirus.

A game-changing development

Only the basic details had been made public until Wednesday when images of boxes being unloaded from a private jet started pinging around WhatsApp networks in Cayman.

Boxes of the test kits arrive at Owen Roberts International Airport on Wednesday, 8 April.

Later that day, the governor and premier announced the completion of the deal in a televised press briefing, hailing it as a game-changing development that would allow a new strategy in fighting COVID-19 in the Cayman Islands.

“It has really been a tremendous collaborative effort and a true testament to the Caymanian spirit. When we are faced with challenges, we rise to the occasion,” McLaughlin said, offering “heartfelt thanks” from himself and on behalf of the Caymanian people to everyone that had made it happen.

Roper said the new kits could help save lives by allowing Cayman to test widely, isolate carriers of the virus and prevent its spread throughout the island.

“This puts us in a position to step up our testing – up to 500 a day. That is a key part of our strategy now for suppressing this virus,” he said.

For Forbes, it was not until two days later when forensic technicians at the Cayman Islands Hospital verified that the kits were fully functional that he could breathe a sigh of relief.

A former internal auditor at the UK Foreign Office and a cautious man by nature, he knew the extraordinary risk Cayman had taken. Pushing through a deal of this nature in the space of nine days is unheard of in normal times.

“It was a huge gamble with a lot of money, but it paid off,” he said.

A story of relationships

For Vernie Coe this is, more than anything, a story about relationships – personal and political.

Family and friendship connections spanning the globe from Mexico to the Korean peninsula got the deal on the table.

And Cayman’s links, through the UK, to trade delegates on the ground in Seoul helped get it signed, sealed and delivered.

“It has been a privilege to work with the team involved in this,” said Coe. “It was just the right set of people in the right place at the right time; members of different countries and cultures working together towards an incredibly important common goal.

“I think this operation has also been the best example of why we need to keep our relationship with the UK government strong for the future.”

Vernie Coe and his cousin Fernando Jose Nicholson Leos.

For Nicholson Leos, who shared in the moment, via WhatsApp, from nearly 1,500 miles away, it is a story about heroes.

“This saved the country money; I think this saved lives,” he said. 

“Vernie and Craig and Dawn and Matthew – what they did was heroic.

“There was no running and shooting involved, just a lot of emails and a lot of calls in broken English and broken Korean, but it was heroic.”

For the Mexican grandson of West Bay’s Randolph and Mable Coe, it is a story that has only deepened his connection to Cayman.

“I was glad to help,” Nicholson Leos said. “I am happy to call Cayman my homeland, and it was really important to me to assist in the way that I could.”

  • Additional reporting by Victoria Wheaton

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