- Iceland, an island country home to about 364,000 people, has taken a different approach to the coronavirus than many other countries.
- The government allows testing for anyone who wants it. Iceland is also working to identify people who have the virus quickly so it can isolate them.
- The country has not gone on lockdown during the pandemic.
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As countries around the world try to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, Iceland is taking an unusual approach.
Instead of testing selectively, the country is allowing everyone to be tested and isolating people quickly if they test positive.
Iceland, an island home to about 364,000 people, confirmed its first COVID-19 test in late February when a resident of the country tested positive upon returning from a trip to Italy, according to The Washington Post. Since then, the total case count has risen to 1,319 across Iceland, according to the country’s coronavirus website. The country has had two COVID-19-related deaths.
Coronavirus cases account for 0.36% of the nation’s population, which is much higher than the US, where cases account for 0.06% of the population.
Iceland’s case count could be so proportionately high because they have taken a radical approach to testing. Even people without symptoms may take a test.
According to Iceland’s government website, about 20,930 people, or about 6% of the population, have been tested. As of Wednesday, the US had conducted about 1.1 million tests, which accounts for about 0.34% of the US population.
Iceland teamed up with a biotechnology company to help run COVID-19 testing
In order to expand its testing abilities, Iceland’s government teamed up with Reykjavik-based deCODE Genetics, which is a subsidiary of the US-based biotechnology company Amgen.
Data from the country has shown that 50% of the people who tested positive for COVID-19 in Iceland were asymptomatic, which confirmed concerns that asymptomatic people could be spreading the virus.
Along with voluntary and random testing, Iceland is also working to quickly identify individuals who have come in contact with others who tested positive for COVID-19, and is urging those people to isolate.
The country has even put together a team of detectives to ID potential coronavirus carriers, NBC News reported.
“Every second somebody is getting infected, so obviously we want as few people infected as we possibly can,” detective Gestur Palmason told NBC News. “As quickly as we can, we have to reach everyone that might have been in contact with someone who’s positive, and try to stop them before they get in contact with more people.”
The work in Iceland has helped researchers pinpoint areas where the virus first started to spread in the country, deCODE’s founder Dr. Kári Stefánsson told CNN.
“We can determine the geographic origin of the virus in every single [virus] in Iceland,” he said.
Iceland hasn’t locked down the country like others have
Iceland has not implemented lockdowns in the country, though it has banned gatherings of more than 100 people.
The country’s Directorate of Health told CNN that tracing the virus to its origin and the country’s mass testing allowed the government to hold off imposing a lockdown.
“There is also another reason, no less important, we have pursued a very aggressive policy of quarantine for individuals – suspected to be at risk of having contracted the virus – for much longer and at a higher scale than most other countries we are aware of,” the organisation told CNN.
Thorolfur Guðnason, Iceland’s chief epidemiologist, told BuzzFeed News that Iceland’s small population allows the government to have higher testing capabilities.
He said the mass testing is “intended to gather insight into the actual prevalence of the virus in the community, as most countries are most exclusively testing symptomatic individuals at this time.”
It’s unclear if Iceland’s approach would work elsewhere
It remains unclear if such testing would work in larger countries, like the US.
Guðnason told NBC News, though, that Iceland has spent years preparing for a pandemic in ways other countries have not.
“We have been writing up response plans anticipating this event coming,” he said in an interview. “We have been preparing different partners in the society for this to happen, and so it’s relatively easy for us to activate the plan.”
Iceland’s health director, Alma Moeller, told NBC News that she expects the epidemic to peak in the country in mid-April. She hopes to expand capacity and staff in hospitals to accommodate future cases.
“It looks to us now that we have this relatively under control in Iceland,” Kari Stefansson, chief executive of deCODE Genetics, told The Post. “We are clearly optimistic and we will continue to screen. We are increasing the effort.”
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