Icelandic Company Alvotech Set to Conquer US Market

Róbert Wessman rings the closing bell at Nasdaq Iceland to celebrate listing Alvotech for trading.

Icelandic biotech company Alvotech accepted an offer from professional investors today for the sale of shares worth ISK 23 billion [USD 166 million]. The sale will be conducted through Nasdaq Iceland. Just two days ago, Alvotech’s drug SIMLANDI was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This positions it to compete with one of the highest-grossing pharmaceutical products in the world.

Share price up 11.8%

Alvotech was founded by Icelander Róbert Wessman, who still heads the company. The company focuses on the development and manufacture of biosimilar medicines worldwide. Alvotech intends to use the net proceeds from the transaction “to strengthen its production capacity and to support expected biosimilars launches,” according to the company. Alvotech’s share price is up 11.8% today and is now at ISK 2,500 per share.

New drug approved for US market

Three days ago, Alvotech’s drug SIMLANDI was approved by the FDA as an interchangeable biosimilar to Humira for the treatment of several types of arthritis and other conditions. SIMLANDI is the first high-concentration, citrate-free biosimilar to Humira that has been granted an interchangeability status by the FDA. This means it can be substituted at pharmacies without consulting the prescriber, like generic drugs are substituted for brand-name drugs.

Could change US pharmaceutical market dynamics

“This approval is an important milestone in Alvotech’s journey to offer broader access worldwide to more affordable biologics,” Róbert Wessman stated. He adding that SIMLANDI “has the potential to change the market dynamics in a rapidly evolving environment for biosimilars in the US.”

In 2023, Humira was one of the highest-grossing pharmaceutical products in the world. Its sales in the U.S. reached nearly $12.2 billion.

Parliamentarian to Submit Bill on Use of AI

Björn Leví of the Pirate Party

Björn Leví Gunnarsson, an MP for the Pirate Party, says that Iceland urgently needs a law in place on the use of AI, RÚV reports. A bill on that subject will be submitted within the next few days.

A controversial skit

To illustrate the importance of such a law, Björn referred to a skit in the year-end sketch comedy show Áramótaskaupið which used the AI likeness of beloved entertainer Hermann Gunnarsson, who passed away in 2013. The choice was controversial, and sparked a broader discussion about the legal ramifications on the use of AI.

In addition, he cited how AI is already being used in the US and the UK to spread misinformation.

The future does not wait

“The future doesn’t actually care about the speed limits within politics, which drags its feet in all projects for years, tossing them back and forth between committees and workgroups while things are happening,” he said.

Björn emphasised that the matter cannot wait for the European Union or some committee or another to catch up with ever-changing technology.

“We need to make it clear that the re-use of material that one could presume is real, whether we’re talking about images, video, sound or other media, is not permitted without the express consent of the individual in question or their immediate associates if the individual is deceased,” Björn said. “We need to respond to this immediately.”

Such a law would be put into effect through Iceland’s existing law on copyrights, he added. Parliament can expect the bill within the next few days.

Wave of Respiratory Illness in Iceland

COVID-19 vaccine vaccination Iceland

Many people in Iceland are sick with respiratory illnesses and the situation is expected to continue. The peak of infections has not been reached, according to Chief Epidemiologist Guðrún Aspelund, as fewer people than expected received vaccinations for Covid and influenza this fall. “It’s been Covid, influenza, RSV, and other respiratory infections and viruses,” she told Vísir.

New Covid variant spreads

The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified JN.1, an Omicron variant, as a Covid “variant of interest” due to its rapid spread. “Covid is highly infectious and it’s causing illnesses and many people get very sick,” Guðrún said. The symptoms of JN.1 are similar to previous variants, Guðrún added, but there has been no uptick in hospital admissions as a result of this wave.

However, many people have been admitted for other illnesses. “We always have some people admitted with Covid,” Guðrún said. “There’s also been an uptick in admissions where people have influenza or RSV. Especially young children.”

Campaign to get people vaccinated

Guðrún urges people to get vaccinated for influenza and Covid. Health care providers still offer this service and it is strongly recommended for people over 60 years of age. “The participation has unfortunately not been very good this fall, but there was an increase last week when the health care centres campaigned to urge people to come,” Guðrún said.

She added that even though people may have become tired of the discussion about Covid vaccinations, it remains important to get shots. “These are well-researched vaccines that billions of people have used,” Guðrún said. “They’ve been shown to be effective and protect against serious illnesses and deaths.”

Skull Traced to 18th-Century Danish Woman

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Residence of Minister

Human skull fragments, discovered under the floorboards in the attic of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Tjarnargata this fall, have now been analysed by deCODE genetics. Experts announced this Friday that the skull belonged to a Danish woman who most likely lived and died in Iceland in the 18th century, Vísir reports.

The discovery of the skull sparked curiosity, but no criminal activity was ever suspected. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, herself a scholar and author of crime novels, said at the time that finding human remains in such a noteworthy setting should provide intriguing story material.

Brown hair and brown eyes

At yesterday’s press conference at the Residence, however, it was confirmed that no foul play was involved. CEO of deCODE, Kári Stefánsson said that distant relatives of the woman can be found in Denmark, but that Danish authorities did not allow further inquiry into which Danish people she was related to. Geneticists Agnar Helgason and Sunna Ebenesersdóttir introduced the findings and revealed that the woman may have had brown hair and brown eyes. No descendants or relatives of hers exist in Iceland.

Agnar mentioned a theory that the woman’s remains may have originated from nearby Víkurkirkjugarður cemetery. Major construction has taken place in the area throughout the years and human remains have regularly been discovered as a result.

Recent renovations

Renovation work, including enhanced fire protection measures, recently commenced at the Minister’s Residence. Significant modifications were previously carried out in 1980, and additional upgrades were made toward the end of the 20th century. The investment in maintenance work comes as the residence has seen increased use in recent years, particularly for governmental meetings and similar functions.

The minister’s residence in Reykjavík has a storied history, originating as a one-story log house built in 1892 by Norwegian Hans Ellefssen for his whaling station in Önundarfjörður. Sold to Iceland’s first minister, Hannes Hafstein, for a nominal fee, the house was disassembled and moved to Reykjavík in the early 20th century. It served as the official residence for Icelandic prime ministers until the 1940s, with its last occupant being Hermann Jónasson. Over the years, the residence has hosted various dignitaries including David Ben Gurion and Duke Philip of Edinburgh, and has been used for receptions and meetings.

New Marine Research Vessel Honours Þórunn Þórðardóttir

The research vessel Þórunn Þórðardóttir

A new marine research vessel Þórunn Þórðardóttir, expected to enhance Iceland’s marine research capabilities, will be launched on December 15 and is expected to be delivered in October 2024. The ship’s namesake was a pioneering marine researcher in Iceland.

To replace Bjarni Sæmundsson

A new marine research vessel, the Þórunn Þórðardóttir HF300, will be launched on December 15. Þórunn, the ship’s namesake, was Iceland’s first woman educated in marine research and a pioneer in studying microalgae’s primary production (i.e. the process by which microalgae convert inorganic carbon, typically in the form of carbon dioxide (CO₂), into organic compounds using the energy from sunlight).

Born in 1925 and a graduate of Oslo University, Þórunn received honorary recognition for her contributions to marine research. She adapted the radiocarbon method to Icelandic conditions, and her measurements remain relevant today, as noted by the Marine & Freshwater Research Institute. She passed away in 2007, leaving behind her husband, Odd Didriksen, and their two children.

In a press release published on the government’s website, Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, highlighted the ship’s significance for Icelandic marine research and commended the apt naming on the day of the Women’s Strike. The vessel, whose construction has been overseen by the engineering firm Skipasýn at the Astilleros Armón shipyard in Spain, measures nearly seventy metres in length and thirteen metres in width. Powered mainly by oil and equipped with two large batteries, it will replace the Bjarni Sæmundsson in about a year.

deCODE genetics to Join Efforts to Eradicate Scrapie

Ólafur Magnússon og frú bændur á Sveinsstöðum Trú frá S

The biopharmaceutical company that helped Iceland process COVID tests throughout the pandemic is now set to join another important project: the battle to eradicate the fatal disease scrapie from the Icelandic sheep population. RÚV reports that this spring, deCODE genetics will begin analysing genetic material from sheep to determine whether they carry a genotype that protects against the degenerative disease. Scrapie was recently diagnosed at a farm in Northwest Iceland, in a region where it had never been detected before.

Scrapie is often described as the ovine equivalent of mad cow disease. If a sheep tests positive for scrapie, the entire herd is culled, the entire farm’s hay must be destroyed, and the farm and its implements must be sanitised, either chemically or through fire. Even despite these measures, the disease can remain dormant in the environment for decades. The disease takes both a financial and emotional toll on farmers.

Researchers have recently discovered two genotypes in the Icelandic breed of sheep that appear to protect the animals from scrapie: ARR and T137. Breeding programs with those sheep have begun in efforts to eradicate the disease from Iceland.

Read More: Good Breeding

Until now, Icelandic researchers have had to send genetic samples to Germany for analysis in order to determine whether sheep carry the protective genotypes. With the help of deCODE genetics, it would be possible to test the samples locally. Researchers hope to test the existing stock more broadly as well as, of course, the offspring of the sheep that have already been found to carry the genotypes to see whether they have been passed down.

“If this collaboration with deCODE genetics works out, then hopefully it will be possible to test these samples in Iceland,” stated Eyþór Einarsson of the Icelandic Agricultural Advisory Centre. “And they also have a large capacity, and can handle the project, because the number of samples that will need to be analysed will multiply in the coming years as we get more rams in circulation that carry these genotypes.” Eyþór stated that there could be as many as 40,000 samples that need analysis by next year, and further research into the existing stock would also be necessary.

“This is really exciting and gives us hope and optimism for the future that there is a sort of definite response to this scrapie issue.”

Guðmundur Felix May Lose His Arms A Second Time

guðmundur felix

Guðmundur Felix, an Icelander famous for being the recipient of one of the world’s first-ever double arm transplants, may be in danger of losing his arms for a second time.

While working as an electronics engineer in 1998, Guðmundur Felix received a high-voltage shock while working on power lines. Suffering an 8 metre [26 foot] fall, he broke his back and fractured his neck and ribs. Following a period of unconsciousness, he awoke to find that his arms had been amputated.

In January 2021, however, he was one of the first people in the world to receive a double-arm transplant. He currently lives in Lyon in France, where he has found a medical team that specialises in such operations.

Read more: Guðmundur Felix Talks About His Arm Transplant

Now, unfortunately, he may be in danger of losing his arms again.

Guðmundur Felix’s full statement can be found below on social media.

 

Approximately a year and a half after his surgery, his body may be rejecting his arms. Guðmundur Felix began noticing tell-tale signs of the rejection recently, which included red spots on his arms and fingernails falling out.

Generally, such rejections of transplanted limbs occur sooner after the surgery, but late rejections are not unheard of.

In his statement, he also said that he is currently on a strong regimen of steroids that acts as a “bomb” on his immune system, which may suppress his body’s rejection of the limb.

 

Dazzling Northern Lights to Be Visible in Iceland Tonight

Northern Lights over a lake

Clear weather conditions and solar wind are expected to make for bright and powerful northern lights tonight, Mbl.is reports. When space is at its windiest, the northern lights are at their most beautiful, a press release from a science communicator notes.

Clear weather and solar wind

In a press release published today, Sævar Helgi Bragason – educator and science communicator (editor of the Astronomy website) – predicts that clear weather conditions and solar wind will make for dazzling northern lights tonight, Mbl.is reports.

Sævar points those interested to the Icelandic website Auroraforecast, which publishes information regarding space weather, the magnetic field, and cloud cover over Iceland. The website provides all the most important information needed for people hunting for northern lights.

“The Northern Lights are created when fast-moving ionised particles from the Sun, referred to as solar wind, collide with the Earth’s upper atmosphere. When space is at its windiest, the northern lights are at their most beautiful. This fast solar wind that we are experiencing right now can be attributed to a coronal eruption on the sun last March 11,” Sævar Helgi stated in the press release.

Questions concerning a “bright star in the west”

As noted by Mbl.is, Sævar revealed that he had received numerous inquiries from people about that “bright star that shines in the west at sunset.”

“This is Venus, the star of love. It is rising and will be prominent in the evening sky until summer. Jupiter is lower and descends rapidly in the sky until it disappears behind the sun as seen from us during the month.”

GPT-4 to Aid in the Preservation of the Icelandic Language

Alþingi parliament of Iceland

As noted in an article published yesterday, Iceland has partnered with OpenAI (the company that developed ChatGPT) to use its next-generation version of GPT in an effort to preserve the Icelandic language – and to turn “a defensive position into an opportunity to innovate.” The Minister of Culture and Business Affairs told RÚV yesterday that the partnership had proved that small nations could, if they had “done their homework,” use AI and language technology to aid in the preservation of their languages.

Turning a defensive position into an opportunity

Yesterday, OpenAI released GPT-4, the fourth in a series of the company’s multimodal large language models that powers ChatGPT, an AI chatbot launched last November. GPT-4 will initially be available to ChatGPT Plus subscribers (who pay $20 per month for premium access to the service), and it is already powering Microsoft’s Bing search engine platform.

As noted in an article published on OpenAI’s website yesterday, among those parties using GPT-4 to its advantage is the Icelandic government, which is employing this next-generation version of GPT to preserve its language. GPT-4 has made significant improvements in its ability to respond in Icelandic, improvements that are partly the result of a collaboration inspired by an Icelandic delegation’s visit to OpenAI ’s headquarters in May of last year. The delegation, consisting of Iceland’s President and government ministers, met with OpenAI’s founder, Sam Altman.

“Iceland […] partnered with OpenAI to use GPT-4 in the preservation effort of the Icelandic language – and to turn a defensive position into an opportunity to innovate. The partnership was envisioned not only as a way to boost GPT-4’s ability to service a new corner of the world, but also as a step towards creating resources that could serve to promote the preservation of other low-resource languages.”

The article also quotes Jóhanna Vigdís Guðmundsdóttir, CEO of Almannarómur (a non-profit language technology center): “We want to make sure that artificial intelligence will be used not only to help preserve language, culture, and history, but also to underpin economic prosperity.”

Better, but still flawed

As noted by the New York Times, GPT-4 has shown impressive improvements in accuracy when compared to its predecessor (GPT-3.5): it’s gained the ability to summarise and comment on images, summarise complicated texts, and is capable of passing a bar exam and several standardised tests; however, it still shows a tendency to hallucinate answers.

Likewise, GPT-4, while much better at Icelandic than GPT-3.5, still produces Icelandic with “grammatical errors, ‘translationese,’ and incorrect cultural knowledge.” To make further improvements, Vilhjálmur Þorsteinsson, CEO of Miðeind (a privately owned software company based in Reykjavík that specialises in language technology), assembled a team of 40 volunteers to train GPT-4 on proper Icelandic grammar and cultural knowledge.

In a process called Reinforcement Learning from Human Feedback (RLHF) human testers give GPT-4 a prompt, and four possible completions are generated. After reviewing the four responses, testers choose the most suitable answer and refine it to achieve an optimal completion. The insights derived from this procedure are subsequently utilised to enhance the performance of GPT-4, enabling it to generate more refined responses in the future.

As noted by OpenAI, RLHF produces results with just 100 examples, which makes it “more feasible for other low-resource languages, with less digital language data available, to replicate the process.” Prior to RLHF, the process of fine-tuning a model was labour and data-intensive. Þorsteinsson’s team had initially attempted to fine-tune a GPT-3 model with 300,000 Icelandic language examples, but the results were “disappointing.”

“Now we can just jump directly to the general capabilities of the large models,” Þorsteinsson is quoted as saying on OpenAI’s website, “and enable things with our language that used to require a lot of manual labour, data preparation, and resource collection for each use case.”

With a single round of RLHF complete, the model still has some room for improvement, which provides ongoing work for the Icelandic team: to continue to train GPT-4 with sufficient examples so that the model can power “the most complex and creative applications in Icelandic, rather than defaulting to English.”

The aim is to allow the entire country to interact with OpenAI’s models in their own language, which would, for example, save Icelandic companies from relying on English-speaking chatbots on their websites.

A “very happy day”

In an interview with RÚV yesterday, Minister of Culture and Business Affairs Lilja Alfreðsdóttir stated that she was very happy with the government’s partnership with OpenAI:

“This is what we’ve been aiming for over the last five years. The government has invested over ISK 2 billion ($14 million / €13 million) in creating this basic language infrastructure so that we can get to this point,” Lilja stated, adding that over sixty experts had been working on the project for the last four to five years.

“This was always the goal: that we could introduce our efforts to companies using artificial intelligence and language technology. We met with OpenAI and this was the result: that we’re the first language besides English that they plan to introduce. So we’re incredibly happy.”

Lilja explained that during their first meeting with OpenAI, it was clear that the company was interested in introducing a language that was not as widely spoken as English: “To show that the world is not just English. We somehow managed to talk about it in cultural, historical, and literary terms.”

Lilja added that this partnership was of great significance in an international context.

“We’re proving that small nations, if they’ve done their homework, can use AI and language technology to preserve their languages. And what our collaborators thought was so amazing was seeing all the work that we had already done – creating this infrastructure so that this technology may be harnessed.”

Poor Cyber Security in Iceland Leaves Infrastructure at Risk

Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir Icelandic minister

Iceland is lagging when it comes to knowledge and education on cyber security, which could put the country at risk of cyber attacks, RÚV reports. Minister of Universities, Innovation, and Industry Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir says a new university program focusing on cyber security will be established in the coming year or so. Suspicious traffic within Iceland’s network jurisdiction has increased sixfold since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022.

 “We are quite far down in cyber security when compared to other countries, and are maybe among countries that we generally don’t want to compare ourselves to,” Áslaug Arna stated. The lack of security could make Iceland’s infrastructure a target for cyber-attacks, including its energy system or its healthcare system.

 Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament, passed amendments to its national security policy two weeks ago. Apart from military threats and cyber security, the policy covers societal threats such as financial security, epidemics, climate change, and natural disasters.