Harnessing the Viking spirit in the war against the virus

Iceland has been turned into a laboratory for screening and tracking the COVID-19 virus thanks to an unprecedented effort in cooperation between health authorities and a private company. Over 10% of the population of 360,000 has now been tested for COVID-19 – and screening will continue until the epidemic has ended.

Dr Kári Stefánsson, the 72-year old founder of deCode Genetics, has been instrumental in devising a screening-programme on an unprecedented scale in close cooperation with national health authorities. There is nothing small about Dr Stefánsson. Over two metres tall and of athletic build, the bearded medical doctor looks like a Viking and with his take-no-prisoners attitude in public debate, he has the reputation of sometimes acting as a warrior as well.  Son of a well-known socialist politician and writer, he resigned his position as professor of neurology, neuropathology and neuroscience at Harvard University to launch the deCode company, which, since 1996, has become a global leader in analyzing and understanding the human genome.

But if Dr Stefánsson has provoked some of his countrymen in the past, all now seems to be forgotten, thanks to his contribution to the fight against COVID-19.

Dr Kári Stefánsson from deCode Genetics - Photo credits: deCode Genetics


Testing, testing, testing

“We are serving as a model system“, Dr Stefánsson explained to UNRIC. “There is no epidemic in history that has been documented better than what we are doing in Iceland. It gives us a model of how the virus is spreading.“

Icelandic authorities started the screening at the beginning of February but only at the end of the month was COVID-19 first detected. “I think Iceland is the only country in the world that started screening for the virus, even before it arrived.“

Only days after the first COVID-19 case was detected in Iceland, Dr Stefánsson offered the services of his company for wide-spread screening. He noted that the health authorities had limited capacity, while his company had the equipment, a lab equipped for work with viruses, and expert staff. Due to infection risk the company had had to put its genetic studies on hold.

“Fifty people in our clinic were out of a job and had nothing to do. I decided to propose to health authorities to screen the general population in Iceland.“

The World Health Organization has emphasized that testing is fundamental to understanding the spread of COVID-19. Iceland may have one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the world, but this goes hand in hand with one of the most aggressive testing efforts anywhere. Eight people have died in Iceland as of 12 April, 1700 have been infected and almost 900 have recovered.

Over 35,000 have been tested or just under 10% of the population.  “This is a world record, possibly with the exception of the Faroe Islands,” Thórólfur Guðnason, Chief Epidemiologist told a press conference.

Half of the screenings have been performed by deCode and half by the Landspitali – the National University Hospital. The Hospital has concentrated on those who are at high risk or are showing symptoms. 7% of those tested have been positive.

DeCode meanwhile has tested everyone who is not showing symptoms and not currently in quarantine. “As of 7 April the positive rate is 0.6% of the general population“, says Dr Stefánsson.

Staff at deCode Genetics in protective equipment - Photo credits: deCode Genetics


Measures are working

So far Iceland has not imposed total lockdowns like many other countries. Measures to fight the Coronavirus, have focused on testing, contact tracing of infections, physical distancing, and raising awareness of hand sanitation. More than 18,500 have submitted to voluntary quarantine measures, gatherings of 20 or more have been banned and many schools are closed.

“Our statistics are showing that the number of infections has been stable or decreasing in the past 2-3 weeks.“

“One example how this has worked is that in the beginning, it was spreading between people in society, of late it is only within families, which means that the containment measures of the authorities have been working. It is a clear demonstration of how quarantines and similar measures have been working.“

Dr Stefánsson is full of praise for Icelandic health authorities and its reaction to the epidemic. He says he doesn´t usually praise the Government unless a gun is pointed at his head, but this time the politicians have given the limelight and decision-making to professionals. “This is unprecedented and I think unique anywhere.“

Dr Stefánsson says that the way in which the virus spread is gradually emerging from the data collected by deCode.

Half of those who have been tested positive had no symptoms. In other words, asymptomatic people have played a major role in spreading COVID-19.

Icelandic authorities reacted quickly in testing people who came back from skiing in the Italian and Austrian Alps, but deCode´s research shows that while the focus was on that region, the virus was slipping in from other countries, notably from Great Britain.

“It is clear from our data that the virus had spread widely in the UK early in this epidemic.“

DeCode’s activities are now moving to another phase.

”We are now starting full-force screen for antibodies against the virus. Our testing so far has been to demonstrate the presence of the virus. Now we will be looking for the immune response against the virus on a very large scale.“


The epidemic has brought the nation closer

It is a badly kept secret that Dr Stefánsson was the model for more than one “mad-scientist” character in Icelandic literature and popular culture in the past few years. Now there is a consensus that his efforts will not only benefit the Icelandic population but hopefully the whole world.

”This epidemic has brought us closer as a nation, “Dr Stefánsson says. “It doesn´t matter with whom I talk. It doesn´t matter where I go to ask for help, everyone is eager to contribute.  We took a formidable operation in human genetics and we turned it completely to study this virus, that is all we do,“ he adds and is full of praise for the American owners of the company and his dedicated staff and indeed the Icelandic nation.

”So despite everything this nasty epidemic is bringing out something good in us. The unruly Icelandic nation that never feels at ease when things are going well, comes together marvellously in the face of adversity. I am very proud of how this nation is responding to this epidemic.“


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