Sheep With Rare Genotype Could Eradicate Scrapie

Sheep that carry special genes could hold they key to eradicating the fatal disease scrapie from Iceland, RÚV reports. The ewes Tignarleg, located on a farm in Northwest Iceland, and Móbotna, on a farm in the northeast, both carry a rare gene that protects them against the fatal, degenerative disease. So far, four ewes that carry the gene have been found in the Icelandic sheep stock, but no rams. The findings are part of an international study that is providing hope that scrapie could be eradicated from Iceland within the next decade.

The Icelandic Agricultural Advisory Centre is taking part in the study alongside experts from Germany, England, and Italy. Guðfinna Harpa Árnadóttir, chairperson of the National Association of Sheep Farmers and a farmer herself, says that the genotype, known as T137, has been found to protect sheep against scrapie in three large Italian studies. “So we have hopes that the same applies to the scrapie that has been plaguing us here in Iceland. But it is yet to be confirmed by further research. But it’s very exciting, at the least, to find that genotype,” Guðfinna stated. 

Read More: Dream of a Scrapie-Free Iceland May Become a Reality

Móbotna, who belongs to Guðfinna, not only carries the rare genotype, but also sports rare colouring and has four horns. Guðfinna says researchers are seeking out sheep with unusual characteristics, as it might indicate they are more likely to carry rare genes. “Hopefully we’ll find more exciting animals that can help us in this fight against scrapie. Of course, in continuation, a breeding plan will be made, about how we plan to cultivate [the genotype] further.”

Scrapie is believed to have arrived in Iceland via an English ram that was transported to Skagafjörður fjord in 1878. It is a fatal, degenerative disease with no treatment or cure and it is highly contagious (between sheep). The prion that causes it can persist in soil and flocks for decades. Scrapie is not transmissible to humans.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Domestic Restrictions to Continue Unchanged

Iceland’s current domestic restrictions, including a 20-person gathering limit, will be extended for an additional three weeks, Health Minister Willum Þór Þórsson announced following a cabinet meeting this morning. Authorities will monitor developments closely in the coming days, Willum stated, to determine whether further measures are necessary to contain the wave of infection. The country’s goal should be to bring daily infections down to 500 in order to protect the healthcare system, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason has stated.

There are currently over 10,000 active COVID-19 infections in Iceland and over 10,000 others are in quarantine. The country has reported around 1,000 daily cases since late December, its largest wave since the start of the pandemic. Iceland’s domestic restrictions were tightened on December 23, 2021 due to rising infection rates, and include a general gathering limit of 20, two-metre social distancing, and mandatory mask use in shops, on public transport, and in services requiring contact. Restaurants, bars, and clubs must close by 10:00 PM, while swimming pools and gyms may not operate above 50% capacity. These restrictions, set to expire on January 12, have now been extended until early February.

Delta variant still straining hospital

Willum emphasised that the coming days were critical in the development of this wave of infection, particularly in ensuring the healthcare system does not get overwhelmed. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated that while evidence showed the Omicron variant caused less serious illness than previous variants, the sheer number of cases is nevertheless straining the healthcare system. Furthermore, the Delta variant continues to be widespread in Iceland, causing serious illness and hospitalisation at higher rates than Omicron.

1,000 daily cases until February

Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Head Physician of Iceland’s COVID-19 Ward Már Kristjánsson met with the Parliamentary Welfare Committee this morning, where they provided MPs with the latest data and projections on the developing wave of infection. Modelling shows that daily infections will remain around 1,000 until February, and around 90 COVID-19 patients will be in hospital by the end of the month, with 20 of them requiring intensive care. Þórólfur stated that daily infections would need to be brought down to 500 in order to protect the healthcare system. 

Þórólfur said that booster shots and COVID-19 infection would eventually increase COVID-19 immunity in Iceland, but it would take weeks or even months for the effects to make an impact, even if the situation remains unchanged.