New deCODE Data Supports Relaxing COVID Regulations

deCode Genetics CEO Kári Stefánsson

According to research from deCODE genetics, at least 20% of Icelanders under 40 have already contracted COVID-19 and as many as 135,000 may have already had it. The company’s CEO Kári Stefánsson has called for abolishing all domestic restrictions in Iceland, including isolation and quarantine, in light of the low rate of serious illness caused by Omicron infections. “We have to respond to the data and I think the data is telling us that now is the time to see whether we can’t live a fine life without using quarantine or isolation,” Kári stated.

As elsewhere in the world, the Omicron variant has led to Iceland’s biggest wave of COVID-19 infection since the start of the pandemic. While the domestic infection rate remains high, the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital has begun falling. Local data shows the rates of hospitalisation due to Omicron infection are much lower than the rates associated with the Delta variant (0.2-0.3% for Omicron versus 2% for Delta).

Chief Epidemiologist: we must proceed slowly

When asked to comment, the Chief Epidemiologist did not oppose Kári’s thoughts on lifting domestic restrictions, including quarantine and isolation, but stressed the importance of proceeding in stages. “I think it’s wiser to proceed slowly rather than go too fast and then have to take a step backwards,” Þórólfur stated. “It would be a little tricky and difficult to do that.”

Iceland’s current domestic restrictions are valid until February 2. They include a 10-person gathering limit, mandatory mask use in shops and public transport, and the mandated closure of all bars and clubs. Þórólfur says he plans to submit recommendations to relax domestic restrictions next week. Health Minister Willum Þór Þórsson has given indications that he would be willing to relax them even sooner.

Steps taken to relax quarantine and isolation regulations

Þórólfur Guðnason, Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist, will submit a memorandum to the Health Minister today that recommends relaxing the regulations on COVID-19 quarantine. According to Þórólfur, the recommendations allow for more people to be exempt from having to quarantine in the case of possible exposure to COVID. Þórólfur states that conditions are in place to relax social restrictions in Iceland, but it is important to do so in stages.

“What we are working on now with the [Health] Ministry and the Minister is to simplify quarantine rules and simplify testing. And I think it’s wise to start there,” Þórólfur stated. Authorities have already taken steps to relax quarantine and isolation restrictions, including by shortening mandatory isolation from 10 to seven days and exempting triple-vaccinated individuals (and double-vaccinated individuals who have recovered from COVID) from mandatory quarantine in the case of potential exposure. Regulations on isolation have also been relaxed, allowing individuals to leave their place of isolation for walks.

Majority of Icelandic Music Catalogue Sold to Universal Music

Bubbi Morthens musician concert

Iceland’s largest music label, Alda Music, has been bought by Universal Music/Ingrooves Music Group, the largest music corporation in the world, Vísir reports. The head of Iceland’s Musicians’ Union expects the acquisition to give Icelandic musicians “bigger speakers” and open doors for them abroad. The purchase directly impacts the majority of music released in Iceland as well as the local music industry as a whole.

Alda Music was founded in 2016 by musicians Sölvi Blöndal and Ólafur Arnalds. The label purchased the rights to a large catalogue of Icelandic music previously belonging to Sena, including the music of current and decades-old hit artists. Alda, and now Ingrooves, hold the rights to 80% of all music released in Iceland, according to the company’s own figures.

“In just a few years, Sölvi and his team at Alda have built Iceland’s most powerful distribution network with an incredible roster of local artists,” Bob Roback of Ingrooves stated on the purchase. “We are looking forward to working closely with them as we invest in the local music community and expand opportunities for artists both within Iceland and around the world.”

Bigger speakers for local musicians

The purchase could help increase value in the Icelandic music by increasing its reach abroad, according to Gunnar Hrafnsson, chairman of the Musician’s Union of Iceland (FÍH). “I think [Icelandic music] has got bigger speakers now. There is more capital behind it and a more powerful company.”

Others in the industry may have more reservations about the sale. “Important to think about and discuss this news of a foreign company’s purchase of the distribution rights to a large portion of Icelandic music,” Icelandic musician Logi Pedro Stefánsson tweeted today. “As a small nation with a tiny language we have to stand guard over our cultural wealth and legacy, and how we support the arts as well as possible in the future.”

Copyright remains in composers’ hands

It is clear the purchase will greatly impact the Icelandic music industry, Bragi Valdimar Skúlason, chairman of the Composer’s Rights Society of Iceland (STEF), told Fréttablaðið. “There are of course huge interests at stake here. There is a remarkable catalogue of Icelandic songs from the very start [of recording].” Bragi Valdimar points out that musicians still hold the rights to the songs themselves, though Universal has acquired the rights to the masters (or recordings). This could be positive for STEF, as Universal will invest in distributing the recordings.

What impact the purchase of Alda will have is yet to be seen, Bragi Valdimar added, but it is just one step of a development that has been ongoing for some time, and not only in Iceland. “It’s been something of a trend that these independent labels have a tendency to merge together in the end.”

Sprat: New Fish Species Breeding Off Iceland’s Coast

Researchers have confirmed that the fish species sprat is spawning in Icelandic waters, according to a new report from Iceland’s Marine and Freshwater Research Institute. Sprat has been found in significant numbers off the south and west coast and spawned near Ísafjarðardjúp fjord in the Westfjords last year. Sprat first appeared near the Icelandic coast in 2017, and its numbers have been increasing since. 

Probably originate from Faroese waters

As seen in the picture above, sprat is not dissimilar to herring, a commercial species important in Icelands fishing industry. It has likely reproduced in more locations than just near Ísafjarðardjúp, according to the report. Over the past few years, Icelandic vessels have fished the species in greater numbers.

The most likely explanation for the appearance of sprat is that sprat larvae were carried to Icelandic waters by ocean currents before hatching near the coast of Iceland. Approximately 1,000 tonnes of sprat was fished by Faroese vessels in 2020, and the larvae likely originated from Faroese waters; however, no eggs, larvae, or mature sprat have been found in the waters between Iceland and the Faroe Islands, says Jón Sólmundsson, an ichthyologist with the Marine & Freshwater Research Institute, and who recently authored an article on sprat in the magazine Náttúrufræðingurinn

Even though sprat was first fished near Iceland in 2017, Jón believes that the species had been fished by Icelandic fishing vessels earlier, given its similarity in appearance to young herring. 

Only time will tell

Sprat is the common name applied to a group of forage fish belonging to the genus Sprattus in the family Clupeidae. Sprat is a highly active, small, oily fish, which travels in sizeable schools with other fish and swims continuously throughout the day. According to Jón, it is unclear whether sprat will begin to breed near the Icelandic coast more permanently; water temperature and other environmental factors will determine whether sprat will become an important species within Icelandic fishing grounds.

Health Minister to Relax COVID Restrictions Once Hospital Gives Go-Ahead

Minister of Health Willum Þór Þórsson

Iceland’s Minister of Health Willum Þór Þórsson is working on a plan for lifting COVID-19 restrictions and hopes to present it by the end of this week, Vísir reports. Current domestic restrictions, including a 10-person gathering limit and closure of all bars and clubs, are valid until February 2. The situation at the National University Hospital is improving, with data showing COVID-19 illness is shorter and less severe than in previous waves.

“Thankfully the development in this pandemic has been and this wave that the numbers are working with us and we’re always looking at the healthcare system in particular in that respect, that we can handle the situation and are providing all healthcare services in the country,” Willum stated. New data shows that the hospitalisation rate and the average length of time COVID-19 patients spend in hospital have both reduced significantly. The average length of time the COVID-19 ward has to monitor patients isolating at home has also shortened.

Before relaxing restrictions, hospital must lower alert phase

Iceland’s National University Hospital declared an emergency phase on December 28 due to strain from COVID-19 cases among patients and staff. The Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management also declared an emergency phase earlier this month due to the pandemic. Authorities have since taken measures to ease strain on the hospital, including by negotiating a contract with a private healthcare clinic to address staffing issues.

Willum stressed that the Civil Protection Department and Hospital would need to lower their emergency phase before domestic restrictions could be relaxed. “As soon as we see that happen, then we can loosen restrictions,” he stated, adding that he expects the loosened restrictions to go further than raising the gathering limit to 20.

The Minister did, however, stress the importance of lifting restrictions in stages.