A few individuals in Iceland have turned down the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated at a briefing in Reykjavík today. Þórólfur stressed that while the manufacturer’s vaccine is slightly less effective than those made by Pfizer and Moderna, the difference is insignificant and there is no reason for the public to refuse it. Those who refuse vaccination will lose their spot in priority groups and be put at the end of the line, the Chief Epidemiologist stated.
Iceland has reported no new domestic cases of COVID-19 out of quarantine since February 1. Authorities announced that twice-weekly briefings would be reduced to once per week and the next briefing would take place on Thursday, March 4 at 11.03am UTC.
The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.
On the panel: Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson and Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason.
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 0 new domestic cases and 1 at the border. Total active cases have dropped to 15. 12,376 have been fully vaccinated, just under 3.4% of the population.
The briefing has begun. Víðir begins by addressing the ongoing earthquake swarm in Southwest Iceland. He encourages the public to make sure there are no loose items in their homes that can fall on people as they are sitting or sleeping.
Þórólfur goes over the numbers. The situation continues to be good, no new domestic cases yesterday. Fewer samples were taken however, 450 as compared to around 1,000 per day in recent days. The last domestic case that was diagnosed outside of quarantine in Iceland was on February 1, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason says.
For the past week, seven COVID-19 infections have been caught at the border, 3 of them active infections. There have been no cases of the South African or Brazilian variants of the virus. We must be vigilant when it comes to variants believed to be more infectious. The British variant is spreading rapidly in the Nordic countries, says Þórólfur.
We’re entering a new chapter in the fight against COVID-19, doing our best to stave off new infections but relaxing restrictions domestically, says Þórólfur. Over 200 travellers arrive in Iceland each day and the majority of them now present certificates of negative PCR tests, vaccination certificates, or antibody certificates confirming a previous COVID infection. Most arriving travellers come with a negative PCR test certificate or around 80%. Around 3% present an antibody certificate and 3% a vaccination certificate. Research from Israel is showing that those vaccinated against COVID-19 are unlikely to spread the virus to others, which is good news. We need to watch out for if people are testing positive at the border despite presenting negative PCR tests before departure, especially if they test positive in the second test (after five days of quarantine). That will be crucial for determining future border regulations. Þórólfur thanks border staff for doing their part and for their patience in adopting new regulations.
Vaccinations are ongoing in Iceland, no updates on distribution schedules for the second quarter are available at this point. We’ve received news in the past few days that people are turning down vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine, says Þórólfur. It does have slightly less efficacy than the other vaccines available, but the difference is small and it does provide active protection against COVID. While people have reported more side effects after the first shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine, people report more side effects after the second shot of the other vaccines so that aspect evens out, says Þórólfur. Þórólfur does not consider there to be a significant different between the currently available vaccines and no reason to refuse the AstraZeneca vaccine or others. Those who refuse the AstraZeneca vaccine miss their spot in the priority group and are put at the back of the line.
The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur still believes we shouldn’t be exempting people with vaccination certificates from border tests and quarantines, but it was the government’s decision to do so anyway so that’s what we’re doing.
Iceland is seeing a reduction in the spread of infectious diseases such as influenza this year as compared to other years, says the Chief Epidemiologist.
We will vaccinate everyone in Iceland, no matter their citizenship, Þórólfur confirms. Icelanders living abroad can be vaccinated here but they won’t be prioritised over others, says Þórólfur.
Þórólfur has no more news on the possible distribution schedule of the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine, which is currently being reviewed by the European Medicines Agency.
The Swedish fear another wave of the pandemic is on the way, and the British variant is wreaking havoc in the countries around us. We’ve detected the British strain in over 60 people at the border but it hasn’t been dominant in border cases and hasn’t spread into the community.
“When can we hug people again?” That depends on your relationship to them, says Þórólfur. You can hug those closest to you, that has never been banned.
“Should people who contracted COVID-19 at the beginning of last year be retested for antibodies and will they be vaccinated?” A final decision has not been made on that, says Þórólfur. Research on how long antibodies last is ongoing. Around 30,000 people were tested for antibodies last year. Though antibodies stick around it is not certain whether they continue to provide protection.
If our current success continues, there’s a chance mask requirements will be lifted, although they will remain optional, that will all remain to be seen, says Þórólfur.
When asked about new border regulations that allow officials to set people in quarantine hotels in certain cases, Víðir states that no one has been required to stay at a quarantine hotel yet and no fines have been issued to those who have failed to present negative PCR tests. Regarding the border: Þórólfur adds that the majority of passengers have had no problems procuring the test certificates, it doesn’t seem to be as difficult as some have worried. After all, most countries are requiring such certificates these days.
Þórólfur is asked to look back at the last 12 months as the first anniversary of Iceland’s first COVID-19 infection (February 28) draws near. Þórólfur states that last spring, he would have thought the virus would spread more in Iceland and take less time to pass, but he was always prepared for the pandemic taking a lot longer to pass. He says he has been happy with border regulations, especially since last August, when double testing was implemented. He sees no reason to change current border regulations before May 1, when a new colour-coded system is expected to take effect.
At the moment, the worst-case scenario and biggest threat is that a new variant of the virus becomes vaccine-resistant. In Iceland, we’ve sequenced more than 350 variants. We don’t need to worry over each one but the possibility of vaccine resistance is definitely a threat. However, we know what we need to do to fight the virus, whether there’s a new variant or not.
“Is the virus somewhere out there in the community still?” As time passes, it becomes less likely that someone is infected but not presenting symptoms. However, we always need to stay vigilant. Þórólfur encourages the public to get tested if they experience symptoms. Early detection is the cornerstone of Iceland’s pandemic response.
Víðir announces that the briefings will be reduced from twice a week to once weekly. The next COVID-19 information briefing will be held next Thursday, March 4, at 11.03am UTC.
The briefing has ended.