How Iceland's Scientific Response To COVID-19 Has Hugely Paid Off

Hallgrimskirkja church and Reykjavik cityscape in Iceland. Image credit: Creative Family/Shutterstock.com

Iceland has taken on an intensely scientific response to the COVID-19 pandemic, complete with extensive screening and in-depth sequencing. The fight against the virus is still ongoing, but it appears their approach has massively paid off. 

As of January 18 at 14:00 GMT, Iceland had 5,970 confirmed infections, including 53 admissions to the intensive care units and 29 deaths, according to government data.

Their insights into the outbreak go much deeper, however. AFP reports that they have managed to sequence the genetic material of each positive viral infection with the help of deCODE genetics, a Reykjavík-based biotech company. From the get-go, the country inviting seemingly healthy people to people tested in a bid to better understand asymptotic carriers and transmission. This has seen them screen over 250,000 samples, account for more than half of the island’s total residents.

The wealth of data has helped to clearly guide the government’s response to the outbreak too. When there was a notable uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases in mid-September 2020, authorities managed to track the outbreak back to a single Irish pub in the capital Reykjavík. In response, all pubs and bars were then promptly closed for a short period across Reykjavík and other surrounding communities. 

Iceland's screening has picked up 41 carriers of the “UK variant,” or VOC 202012/01, a recently detected variant of the virus that’s linked to a significant increase in the rate of COVID-19 infections in the UK. Fortunately, thanks to their PCR testing at their airports, the cases were promptly identified at the border and stopped before they could be introduced to their population.

Other countries have dealt with the pandemic more effectively in regards to the number of deaths and hospitalizations. A stand-out example is New Zealand, which saw just 25 deaths out of their population of 5 million. In fact, 2020's overall mortality rates in the country were actually down compared to previous years. However, Iceland has the advantage of having a relatively small and genetically homogeneous population. Together with prolific testing, this has created an in-depth case study of how COVID-19 might spread around a population. 

“In attempting to carefully map the molecular epidemiology of COVID-19 in Iceland, we hope to provide the entire world with data to use in the collective global effort to curb the spread of the disease,” Kari Stefansson, CEO of deCODE genetics, said in a statement in June 2020. 

Preliminary data from Iceland suggested that around half of people who tested positive for COVID-19 in the country did not display any symptoms — an insight that was only made possible because they tested people who were symptom-free and seemingly not infected. More findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in June 2020, suggesting that children under 10 years old and females had a lower incidence of infection than adolescents or adults and males. Another Icelandic study in the NEJM promisingly showed that antibodies against SARS-CoV2 do not decline within four months after becoming infected.

Now, it looks like Iceland has the outbreak relatively under control, albeit not totally quashed. As of mid-January 2021, the country currently has roughly 16 infections per 100,000 inhabitants, 19 people hospitalized with COVID-19, and zero patients in intensive care.

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