Iceland reported no new domestic cases of COVID-19 for the second day in a row yesterday. At a briefing in Reykjavík today, the country’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason celebrated the success of both domestic and border measures in keeping the pandemic at bay. The island nation currently has 21 active cases of COVID-19, and Þórólfur stated that if case numbers continue to be low, he would consider easing restrictions earlier than the scheduled date of March 3.
The Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca vaccines are being administered in Iceland, where 5,362 have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (1.45% of the population) and an additional 8,015 have received their first dose. Þórólfur stated that the nation’s main goal in the coming weeks was to continue vaccination efforts as well as maintain its success in containing local infections. The most important factor in keeping local infection numbers low is ensuring no COVID cases leak through the borders. Authorities are considering further tightening border regulations and increasing their monitoring of arriving travellers during their mandatory five-day quarantine. All travellers to Iceland are currently required to undergo testing upon arrival, a 5-6 day quarantine, and a followup test.
The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.
On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Chief Superintendent Víðir Reynisson.
Víðir is likely to be asked about two US citizens who breached travel quarantine regulations, according to a report from Fréttablaðið yesterday.
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 0 new domestic cases yesterday and 0 cases at the border. Total active cases have dropped to 21. 11 are in hospital. 5,362 have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in Iceland. 377 frontline workers received their second dose of the Moderna vaccine yesterday.
The briefing has begun. Víðir and Þórólfur begin by wishing Icelanders a happy Icelandic Sign Language day, in sign language. Víðir mentions rumours and misinformation concerning vaccination proceedings and advises caution in spreading rumours that can get people’s hopes up. Víðir says authorities felt the nation’s disappointment when the negotiations for a nationwide vaccination study with Pfizer didn’t pan out, but there is no shortcut out of the pandemic.
Þórólfur takes over to review the data. Nobody tested positive for the virus yesterday, neither domestically nor at the border. 11 are in hospital due to COVID-19, but none of the patients have an active infection. In the past week we had three test positive domestically and 17 at the border, six of which were active infections, says Þórólfur. We can say that our efforts both domestically and at the border have proven successful.
There have been fewer travellers arriving from abroad recently, and the percentage testing positive has been around 0.5% in the past week. In order to protect that success, we’re considering how best to stop new infections from entering the country. The Minister of Health will receive recommendations on further border regulations from the Chief Epidemiologist in the coming days.
Vaccinations with Iceland’s first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have begun. In light of discussion of the quality of that vaccine, Þórólfur states that after two injections, the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine is between 80-90%. This is just slightly lower than the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, which boast more than 90% efficacy.
Þórólfur goes over the informal negotiations that took place with Pfizer, stressing that authorities were kept informed of the proceedings at all times. At a meeting last week, it became clear that Iceland had too few cases for such a study to yield useful results. Pfizer’s decision wasn’t final, but a final answer is expected this week.
Þórólfur regrets the amount of rumours concerning the negotiations. Þórólfur says Icelandic authorities also considered the moral justification for “jumping the line” that a mass study would constitute, and concluded that it was not morally correct for Iceland to take part in such a study unless it would provide data that was globally useful. Þórólfur states that such a study would only have been undertaken if it would have produced scientific data that could benefit the rest of the world.
If such a study would have taken place, it would have followed all normal [legal] procedures in place to ensure the safety and morality of scientific research. Authorities were criticised for not keeping the public informed about the details of the study. Þórólfur points out that the study was in early hypothetical stages and therefore it was impossible to discuss details such as informed consent and scientific benefit.
The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur has no information on vaccine distribution schedules after March. Communication with Moderna indicates that their current distribution schedule through the end of March will stand.
Víðir has no further information on two US citizens reported to have broken quarantine regulations. He refers the enquiry to the police.
Þórólfur is asked about further relaxing restrictions domestically. He replies that he is considering easing restrictions sooner than scheduled if case numbers remain low. Þórólfur states that authorities’ focus right now is on ensuring no infections cross the border. If we were to ease restrictions further domestically, we need to make sure infections don’t leak through from abroad, he says. Authorities are honing their tools when it comes to verifying information given by travellers such as phone numbers and quarantine addresses. Authorities are also considering requiring certain certificates from travellers. If officials doubt a traveller will respect quarantine regulations, it is possible to require them to quarantine in an official government-run hotel.
Þórólfur is asked about how and whether individuals and businesses can plan the summer. Will it be possible to hold festivals? He states that the only certainty is that summer will come. We must wait and see how vaccine distribution will play out before the summer. He adds that if Iceland continues to have so few infections, authorities will strive to keep restrictions as light as possible domestically. At the moment, Þórólfur is pretty hopeful that that will be the case.
Þórólfur is asked about Iceland’s decision to negotiate vaccine contracts through the EU. He states that this has been discussed before and that he can’t see what advantage a tiny island nation like Iceland would have negotiating on its own with giant pharmaceutical producers. The discussions with Pfizer support that view, says Þórólfur.
Þórólfur discusses border restrictions after May 1, states that there are several possibilities and many variables. Þórólfur: The only thing we know and the only thing we can do at this point is to keep infections low and continue with vaccination efforts. That’s our mission for the coming weeks and months.
Þórólfur is asked about different ways the virus spreads and if medical authorities are rethinking the way they combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus regarding the relative likelihood of droplet, contact, and airborne transmission. Þórólfur contests the reporter’s assertion that contact transmission is unlikely and that airborne transmission is more likely in the case of SARS-CoV-2. He encourages the public to ventilate spaces well but says that doesn’t diminish the importance of other preventative methods [handwashing, distancing].
Þórólfur is not ready to disclose details of what he would recommend for the next phase of relaxing restrictions.
DeCode CEO Kári Stefánsson has stated that he doesn’t believe the government’s goal of vaccinating a majority of the population will be reached until next autumn but Þórólfur states that he is more optimistic. Vaccine production will likely ramp up during the spring and vaccination goals should be met by the summer if nothing unexpected happens, says Þórólfur.
When asked about the threat of new variants, Þórólfur mentions that increased analysis of new variants is bringing new information to light, and it’s a risk that needs to be taken into consideration.
Þórólfur is asked about how vaccination will be organised once priority groups have been vaccinated. It will probably be easiest to call people in based on age, he says. A few different scenarios are possible but vaccine availability will likely dictate the plans. For example, if many doses became available at once, authorities may consider vaccinating younger age groups first (once all priority groups are vaccinated). Though they are less likely to get seriously ill, there are indications they spread the virus more than older individuals.
Víðir ends the meeting by asking the public to be optimistic and keep up the good work. The briefing has ended.
Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities’ next COVID-19 briefing on Monday, February 15.