Iceland will not achieve herd immunity until the second half of next year, according to Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason. Until that time, the nation will have to live with some social restrictions, he stated in a briefing this morning in Reykjavík. Icelandic authorities had hoped to vaccinate enough people to achieve herd immunity by April, but delays in vaccine production mean fewer doses will arrive in the country early next year than originally expected.
Although Iceland will receive its first doses of COVID-19 vaccines around Christmas, it will only receive enough to vaccinate around 5,000 people at first. Another 8,000 doses are expected in January and February. Þórólfur stated that although he would have liked to see more doses arrive sooner, it is good news that at-risk individuals can start being vaccinated soon. However, the small amount of vaccine expected to arrive in the coming months means that Iceland will not be able to achieve herd immunity until at least the middle of next year. The delays are due to vaccine manufacturing, not due to Iceland’s contracts negotiated through the EU, authorities have stated.
Health authorities have defined priority groups for vaccination, and healthcare staff and nursing home residents are first on the list. The first five priority groups contain some 20,000 individuals, so it is clear that authorities will need to further break down who receives the first 13,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine expected to arrive in the next two months.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.
On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason (below), Director of Health Alma Möller, and Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson. Special guest: Ingileif Jónsdóttir, Professor of Medicine at the University of Iceland and department head at deCODE genetics.
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 8 new domestic cases yesterday (7 in quarantine at the time) and 8 at the border. Total active cases have dropped to 124. 33 are in hospital and 3 in intensive care.
The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur says a state of uncertainty has been declared in Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland due to mudslides that have led to evacuations. The weather forecast is calling for more rain.
An important reminder to people arriving in the country from Rögnvaldur. Arriving children (who don’t have to be tested) have sometimes been sent to stay with other family members such as grandparents. This leads to them being at risk of infection and is highly discouraged.
Þórólfur goes over the numbers. He is happy with the recent numbers but encourages people to continue to get tested if they experience symptoms. He is also happy with the ratio of positive tests from people who are experiencing symptoms. It’s currently low, around 0.3%.
Eight people tested positive at the border, which makes sense, considering increased traffic (mostly Icelanders returning home for the holidays).
On to vaccines: the timeline is becoming clearer after deals have been reached with pharmaceutical companies. Due to a lack of resources, we won’t get all the vaccines we require at once. Around Christmas, we’ll receive vaccines for 5,000 people and another shipment of vaccines for around 8,000 people in January or February. This means authorities will rethink prioritisation, starting with frontline healthcare workers and moving on to nursing home staff and residents.
Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist: This means we won’t achieve herd immunity until sometime in the second half of next year. We must therefore live with restrictions next year and maintain personal preventative measures. We will be able to relax restrictions somewhat once at-risk groups have been vaccinated, but that will likely not happen until the middle of next year. It won’t be possible to loosen restrictions until we see how the pandemic develops in the next days and weeks. The current regulations are in effect until January 12, Þórólfur reminds the public.
Alma takes over to review restrictions for nursing homes over Christmas. Nursing homes will be open and residents can receive up to 2 visitors at a time. Authorities advise against residents making outings to attend Christmas parties. If residents attend Christmas parties outside their nursing home, they will have to quarantine at a relative’s home for 5 days and be tested for COVID-19 before returning to the nursing home.
The goal of vaccination is to protect people from COVID-19 and reach herd immunity. For herd immunity, we need to vaccinate at least 65% of the nation. Authorities are preparing further information on vaccination. In addition to the individual being vaccinated receiving protection, all of society stands to gain from people being vaccinated.
Ingileif takes over to discuss vaccinations. She begins by explaining the science behind vaccinations and how they work. Vaccination consists of injecting weakened or dead viral matter or viral proteins. This harmless viral matter activates the immune system and the protection can last for years. Ingileif goes over the phases of vaccine development. Early phases mainly emphasise the safety of the vaccine. “One thing I want to say is that for a vaccine to be licenced, its efficacy must be proven first.”
When a vaccine’s development is accelerated, the safety/efficacy requirements are not relaxed. The only change is that authorities receive the data from the research as soon as it’s available. This allows authorities to process the vaccine licences faster. Rare side effects are always a possibility, that possibility can’t be entirely eliminated. Ingileif goes over the details of the Moderna vaccine’s testing, which shows that after two doses of the vaccine, the rate of infection goes down by 95%.
We can say that the protection from the mRNA vaccines is good and that it is consistent across different age groups and genders. In all these testing phases, there were few serious side effects and they were the same among people receiving the vaccine as the ones in the control group (receiving the placebo). If we look at the advantages of mRNA vaccines vs traditional ones, is that they both encourage our own cells to create the immunity response themselves. The disadvantages are mostly that they require storage temperatures of below -20°C. The benefit of vaccination is “much, much much greater” than the risk, says Ingileif. The risk from the vaccine is much lower than the health risk involved in contracting COVID-19.
The panel opens for questions. Pregnant women have not been included in the tests, says Þórólfur. We will be careful but usually, vaccines cause no risk to people breastfeeding. Older people have isolated themselves, Þóróflur states that as soon as they’re vaccinated, restrictions will be relaxed.
Þórólfur states that the first shipment of vaccines is expected to arrive on December 24 and authorities hope to start vaccinating as soon as possible after Christmas. Asked about the “extra doses” that healthcare staff has found in the Pfizer vaccine vials, Þórólfur states that it remains to be seen.
The vaccination production is not as far along as we had hoped but it’s good news that we’re starting to vaccinate risk groups. So it’s still good news but we would have hoped to receive more of the vaccine sooner, says Þórólfur. It is the production of the vaccines themselves, not Iceland’s deals with the EU that are causing delays. Due to the limited amount of vaccines we will receive at first, we won’t be able to vaccinate every high-risk group immediately.
This new information (about vaccines) won’t change much in our work, says Þórólfur. I am aware of the need for long-term predictability, but as soon as we try to make long-term plans, they get derailed by an unpredictable virus. The only predictability we could create would be to lock everything down for many months, says Þórólfur, but I don’t think anyone would like that. So we will have to expect unpredictability in the coming months, unfortunately.
When asked about groups and gatherings around Christmas, Rögnvaldur tells people they must find creative ways to meet as few people as possible and keep groups from overlapping. When the situation arises that a social distance of 2 metres can’t be kept, people should wear masks.
Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson who was diagnosed with COVID recently is out of isolation but he is still recovering and won’t return to work until after Christmas. Rögnvaldur closes the meeting by going over what the public needs to keep in mind when arriving in the country. Quarantine upon arrival to Iceland is necessary because there’s always a certain number of people that are infected upon arrival. He reminds people to keep up personal preventative measures such as handwashing. “Let’s do this together.” The briefing has ended.
Iceland Review live-tweets authorities’ briefings every Monday and Thursday at 11.03am UTC.