COVID-19 in Iceland: Iceland Medicines Agency Approves Pfizer Vaccine

The Iceland Medicine Agency has granted the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine Cominarty a conditional marketing authorisation for Iceland. The vaccine protects individuals from COVID-19 and is intended for people 16 years of age or older. The marketing authorization is based on the European Commission’s conditional marketing authorization, which follows a positive scientific recommendation based on a thorough assessment of the safety, effectiveness and quality of the vaccine by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and is endorsed by the EU Member States.

In a press release, the Iceland Medicines Agency states: “This is an important milestone, as we will now be able to commence vaccinations in Iceland with said vaccine as soon as it arrives.”

Proofreading on Icelandic translations of patient information labels is ongoing and will be published as soon as they’re final.

Iceland’s vaccine acquisition efforts have been criticized in the media lately, following the Spiegel’s critical report on EU vaccine negotiations and Bloomberg’s report indicating that Iceland had secured less of the vaccine for its citizens than was needed.

Bloomberg’s Iceland correspondent Ragnhildur Sigurðardóttir has stated that misinformation on the number of vaccine doses secured by Iceland was due to a technical mistake. A map attached to the report showed the number of people that could be vaccinated considering the amount of vaccines countries have already secured in signed deals. By mistake, the numbers in Iceland’s deal with AstraZeneca weren’t updated on the map. Bloomberg updated Iceland’s number to 218,000 yesterday after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented on the report.

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated in an interview today that he thought the media were overly occupied with the details of the vaccine distribution. He pointed out that weekly deliveries of the Pandemrix vaccine against the swine flu in 2009 kept changing with little notice. He said some nations were fighting over vaccines and that it was important that Iceland worked with the EU on acquiring the vaccine. He comes to the conclusion that pharmaceutical companies would never negotiate with such a small country on its own.

Following Morgunblaðið’s report today that Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir had taken matters into her own hands and was actively engaging in vaccine acquisition, Katrín has denied that she has taken over from Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir, V’isir reports. She states that vaccine acquisition is one of the government’s leading issues, Svandís is spearheading the project but that the government is working together to fulfil their vaccination goals. She spoke to the Pfizer Director to get a better image of the situation and gain oversight. She also stated that she spent yesterday on phone calls and meetings seeking to ensure enough vaccines for Icelanders. Katrín added that Iceland was not lagging behind in vaccine acquisition but that the timeline was still uncertain.

More Icelanders Put Up Christmas Tree This Year

It might be the influence of the pandemic that is leading more Icelanders to set up Christmas trees this year than last year. In a recent survey conducted by MMR, 86% of respondents stated they would put up a Christmas tree in their home this year, up from 83% last year. Artificial trees continue to grow in popularity: 58% of respondents say they will opt for one this Christmas rather than a real tree, a proportion that has been steadily rising from 50% in 2010.

The proportion of those who plan to install live trees has decreased by 14 percentage points since 2010 from 42% to 28%. A total of 14% stated they will not have a Christmas tree this year, a decrease of three percentage points between years.

More Women Prefer Artificial Trees, More Men Prefer None

More female respondents chose artificial trees than male respondents (61% versus 54%). Men are more likely not to put up trees than women, however (18% versus 11%). More rural residents than capital area residents choose artificial Christmas trees for their homes, though the difference is small (61% to 58%).

Respondents 68 years and older are more likely than those in other age groups to not have a Christmas tree in their home: a total of 24% of that age group stated they would not do so this year. Those between the ages of 30-49 were most likely to say they would set up a Christmas tree, or 90%, and 60% of them chose artificial trees.

Pirates Avoid Trees

MMR’s yearly tree survey also compares Christmas tree preferences to political leanings. Supporters of the Left-Green Movement, the Progressive Party, and the Social Democratic Alliance are most likely to choose a genuine Christmas tree, while supporters of the Centre Party and the Reform Party are most likely to choose an artificial tree. A total of 31% of those who support the Pirate Party do not plan to install Christmas trees in their homes this year, the highest percentage among all parties in the poll.

Government to Sell State-Owned Íslandsbanki

Iceland’s government will likely sell one of three state-owned banks this coming spring. The bank in question is Íslandsbanki, though it is not clear what percentage of the bank, now fully state-owned, will be put up for sale. The sale is intended to reduce government risk as well as meet the government deficit expected next year as a result of the pandemic.

According to a government notice, Iceland’s Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson has approved a proposal from the state holding company ISFI to sell Íslandsbanki. The Minister will now prepare a report, to be reviewed by Parliamentary committees and the Central Bank of Iceland. After considering their comments, the Minister will make a final decision on whether to begin the sale process, expected by January 20.

What percentage of the bank is to be sold is not yet known, though earlier this year government ministers discussed a possible sale of 25-50% of its shares. The aim is to sell shares in a public offering and subsequently list all shares in the bank on a regulated securities market in Iceland.

Iceland an Outlier in State Ownership of Banks

The Icelandic government owns a bigger proportion of its country’s banks than any other government in Europe. Two of the country’s three largest banks are in state ownership: Íslandsbanki (100%) and Landsbankinn (98.2%). Reducing state ownership of financial institutions has been an aim of Iceland’s financial policy in recent years and is part of the current coalition’s government agreement. The sale of Íslandsbanki has been in discussion for some time.

Read More: Sale of State-Owned Banks in Iceland

The government notice states that market conditions now appear to be favourable for the sale, in addition to which the bank is in a good financial position. Its sale is intended to reduce government risk in the financial system, promote competition in the banking industry, and increase domestic investment opportunities for individuals and professional investors.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s economic response measures are expected to result in a deficit of around ISK 320 billion ($2.5 billion/€2.1 billion) in 2021. “With the sale, we mitigate the blow of the coronavirus crisis considerably, in addition to which it makes it easier for us to finance continued measures for people and businesses,” stated Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson.

Ministers Travel to Seyðisfjörður Following Mudslides

Four government ministers are on their way to Seyðisfjörður following devastating mudslides that destroyed at least 10 buildings in the city centre, many historic. Although they have not resulted in injuries, the mudslides led to the town’s evacuation and some residents have not yet been permitted to return home. An “alert phase” remains in effect in Seyðisfjörður due to continued danger of mudslides and an “uncertainty phase” remains in effect for East Iceland due to landslide risk. Extreme rainfall is behind the occurrences.

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Minister of Transport and Local Government Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, and Justice Minister Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir flew east this morning to survey the damage caused by the mudslides and speak to locals, RÚV reports. Director of the Civil Protection Department Víðir Reynisson, National Police Commissioner Sigríður Björk Guðjónsdóttir, and CEO of ICE-SAR Jón Svanberg Hjartason accompany the ministers on their trip. The group will tour the affected area as well as speak to local officials and residents, who have been heavily impacted by the events. All were tested for COVID-19 prior to the trip.

Read More: Government Assesses Damage and Promises Assistance

While many of the town’s 690 residents have been permitted to return home, nearly 300 have not yet been permitted to do so. Some residents of houses affected by the landslides were, however, permitted to enter their homes yesterday alongside rescue crews to collect belongings. Civil Protection has set up an emergency response centre in the town at Herðubreið Community and Culture House.

Residents Suggest Government Neglect

Seyðisfjörður resident Jonathan Moto Bisagni stated it was a miracle no one was hurt in the mudslides but says more could have been done by the state government to minimise the effects of such a disaster. “I’m not saying that this disaster was avoidable but there could have been better safety protocols to have us evacuated before the mountains fell on us. They could have constructed defenses. It is hard for me to believe that there was even an evacuation plan in place,” Jonathan wrote in a Facebook post. “Speaking with the mayor of our municipality yesterday, he agreed that something should have been done to prevent this but that the funding simply was not there. This impending disaster was identified as a risk 2 years ago. The risk of avalanche took first priority and this landslide risk was put on the back burner.”

Read More: Avalanche Barriers in Iceland

Those who would like to support the residents of Seyðisfjörður have been encouraged to donate to the local Search and Rescue organisation and the Red Cross of Seyðisfjörður, which have been helping in response efforts. Donation information can be found here.