Iceland has embarked on an intensely scientific response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with extensive screening and sequencing. The fight against the virus is still ongoing, but it seems their approach has paid off massively.
As of January 18 at 14:00 GMT, Iceland had 5,970 confirmed infections, including 53 ICU admissions and 29 deaths, according to government data.
However, their knowledge of the epidemic goes much further. AFP reports that they have successfully sequenced the genetic material of each positive viral infection with the help of deCODE Genetics, a Reykjavík-based biotechnology company. From the outset, the country is inviting apparently healthy people to people being tested in an effort to better understand asymptotic carriers and transmission. This allowed them to screen over 250,000 samples, representing more than half of the island’s total residents.
The wealth of data has also helped to clearly guide the government’s response to the outbreak. When there was a noticeable increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in mid-September 2020, authorities were successful in follow the epidemic in a single Irish pub in the capital Reykjavík. In response, all pubs and bars were quickly closed for a short time in Reykjavík and other surrounding communities.
Testing in Iceland has detected 41 carriers of the ‘UK variant’ or VOC 202012/01, a recently detected variant of the virus which is linked to a significant increase in the rate of COVID-19 infections in the UK. Fortunately, thanks to their PCR tests at their airports, cases were quickly identified at the border and stopped before they could be presented to their population.
Other countries have dealt with the pandemic more effectivelyregarding the number of deaths and hospitalizations. A remarkable example is New Zealand, which has seen only 25 deaths out of a population of 5 million. In fact, the overall 2020 death rates in the country were actually down from previous years. However, Iceland has the advantage of having a relatively small and genetically homogeneous population. Coupled with prolific testing, this created an in-depth case study of how COVID-19 could be spread in a population.
“By trying to carefully map the molecular epidemiology of COVID-19 in Iceland, we hope to provide the whole world with data to use in the collective global effort to curb the spread of the disease,” said Kari Stefansson, CEO of deCODE Genetics. in one declaration in June 2020.
Preliminary data from Iceland suggested that about half of people tested positive for COVID-19 in the country showed no symptoms – an insight that was only made possible because they tested people without symptoms and apparently uninfected. Further results have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in June 2020, suggesting that children under 10 and women had a lower incidence of infection than adolescents or adults and men. Another Icelandic study in the NEJM has shown promisingly that antibodies against SARS-CoV2 do not decrease within four months of infection.
Now, it appears Iceland is relatively under control of the outbreak, although it is not fully canceled. As of mid-January 2021, the country currently had around 16 infections per 100,000 population, 19 people hospitalized with COVID-19 and zero patients in intensive care.