Iceland has signed contracts for the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca and a third contract with Janssen is expected to be signed tomorrow. A fourth contract with Moderna is expected to be signed on December 31. Iceland’s government has already secured enough doses of COVID-19 vaccines for most of the population, but the timeline of when those doses arrive is not yet clear.
Enough doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for 5,000 people are expected to arrive on December 28. Health Ministry Secretary Ásta Valdimarsdóttir stated in a briefing today that the government expects to vaccinate most of the nation in the next 3-6 months.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.
On the panel: Director of Health Alma Möller and Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson. Special guests: Secretary of the Ministry of Health Ásta Valdimarsdóttir and Director of the Icelandic Medicines Agency Rúna Hauksdóttir Hvannberg, who are expected to discuss imminent COVID-19 vaccination in Iceland.
Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 7 new domestic COVID-19 cases yesterday (5 from quarantine) and 4 from border testing. Total active cases have risen to 141, the number in hospital has dropped to 29, with 3 in intensive care.
The briefing has begun. Víðir begins by discussing Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland, which has been devastated by mudslides in recent days. The mudslides are calamitous and while it’s miraculous that no one has been hurt, the damage is extensive and the pain is great. There are over 200 residents of the town that may not yet return home due to ongoing risk. Those who are not residents are asked to stay away from the town and area. The people of Seyðisfjörður’s sense of security is damaged and the work ahead is great. There will be an online town hall meeting via Facebook for Seyðisfjörður residents at 4.00pm today. If people want to be of assistance, we ask them to contact the East Iceland Police. The police is working according to procedure to try to help communities respond to trauma. We stand with the residents of Seyðisfjörður, we will face this together. And Seyðisfjörður will be safe once more.
Alma takes over. She starts by sending her regards to those in Seyðisfjörður, before going over the numbers. The cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in recent days are connected to friend groups and families and tracing has been mostly successful. There are 27 in hospital due to COVID-19 but just 5 of them have active infections. Three are in intensive care and two of those are on ventilators.
There are questions about whether the pandemic is rising again, at least we know that the situation is such that it won’t take much to get it going again. The ratio of positive tests from those getting tested due to symptoms is rising slightly. It was 0.4 per cent a couple of days ago but now it’s 0.9%. Authorities are aware of the news of a new strain of the virus in the UK that seems to be more contagious. While that particular strain’s spike protein has more mutations, it doesn’t cause more severe illness and there’s no indication it won’t respond to vaccinations. One person has been diagnosed with that strain of the virus at the Icelandic border. They went straight into isolation and have not infected anyone else. This indicates clearly that our actions at the border are effective and underlines their importance, says Alma. Healthcare authorities implore people to avoid gatherings in the next few days. “Let’s think of each other and make sure we can all have a merry Christmas,” says Alma.
We are all thinking about vaccination these days, and Secretary of the Ministry of Health Ásta Valdimarsdóttir and Director of the Icelandic Medicines Agency Rúna Hauksdóttir Hvannberg are here to discuss vaccination in Iceland. Ásta takes over and begins by sending her regards to Seyðisfjörður as well. She states she’s at the briefing in order to give information on the government’s vaccine contracts. She states that the Icelandic government began thinking about ensuring vaccine access last spring even though they didn’t think a COVID-19 vaccine would be ready this soon. The COVAX deal and the EU negotiations, of which Iceland is a part, began shortly thereafter. She discusses the COVAX program and its purpose, which is in part to ensure equal distribution of vaccines and ensure vaccine access for developing countries. While COVAX is mostly intended for developing countries, it also gives Iceland the option to purchase additional vaccines.
She also discusses the EU deal which secures Iceland access to vaccines at the same level as EU member countries. Iceland has been cooperating with Icelandic pharmaceutical companies and distributors as well as with Norway, which Ásta says has been helpful. A working group that contains lawyers and specialists with drug acquisition experience is working on vaccine acquisition and another group consisting of medical specialists is concerned with domestic distribution. While Iceland has contracts in place securing vaccine access and a certain number of doses, the contracts don’t outline distribution schedules (i.e. when the doses will arrive). Let’s keep in mind that no vaccine has a market licence within the EU yet, even though we expect Pfizer to receive one before Christmas. There are four contracts currently in the works and we will post updated information on the new website boluefni.is.
We know now that we will receive 10,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine on December 28. From that point until March we will receive 50,000 doses from Pfizer, enough to vaccinate 25,000 people. We expect to be able to vaccinate the majority of the nation in the next few months, beginning with frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents. With the introduction of vaccination, we will likely be able to ease some restrictions in the next year. We will look into that further once vaccination commences.
The Icelandic Medicines Agency (Lyfjastofnun) is in charge of issuing drug licences for the Icelandic market. The European Medicines Agency’s specialists are overseeing vaccine licencing in Europe and two different vaccines seem to be close to being approved. The European Medicines Agency’s licensing of the vaccines is the prerequisite for licensing of the vaccines in Iceland.
The vaccine has been tested on tens of thousands of people, more people than new vaccines are usually tested on. The most common side effects are mild and disappear in a few days but if someone experiences more severe side effects, they are encouraged to report them to the Icelandic Medicines Agency. Many people have wondered why the (Pfizer) vaccine has been approved so fast but it’s important to note that the COVID vaccines have to fulfill the same strict requirements as all other vaccines. While the process has been faster than usual, no steps have been skipped in the approval of COVID vaccines. Vaccination will change life in Iceland and it’s a complicated task. It won’t be easy and it’s important that we’re resilient. She ends by sending her regards to the people of Seyðisfjörður.
On to questions from reporters. The panel is asked about conflicting reports of vaccination timelines – originally the government announced that it would be possible to vaccinate most of the nation by April but now says it will take longer. It’s normal that people wonder about this. We’ve secured vaccines for the whole nation through various contracts but the timeline is not confirmed. Concerning the Bloomberg report and the false information, we have six deals in place which is enough for the whole nation. I also wonder why it’s so desirable that nations secure vaccines for more than double their population while poorer nations don’t have that same access. The World Health Organisation has criticised this behaviour.
The panel is asked about criticism of the EU policy in the vaccination deals. Was it the right decision to work with the EU instead of negotiating for our small nation by ourselves? Ásta replies that states negotiate for themselves and states’ size varies. The European Union is much larger than Iceland and we believed that we would have a stronger negotiating position if we cooperated with the EU instead of negotiating on our own. She mentions that the government first started planning for vaccines in the spring when much less was known about how vaccine production would develop. At that point everyone thought the Sanofi vaccine would be first on the market and Pfizer was much lower on the list. It’s been difficult for negotiators to know which baskets to put their eggs in but Icelandic officials believe Iceland is better off working with the 460 million people of the EU instead of on its own.
It’s not the time to discuss relaxing restrictions now, but Icelandic authorities have done their best throughout the pandemic to ensure that restrictions would not be more severe than they had to be at any given time.
Would it have been possible for Iceland to order more doses from Pfizer and reduce the orders of other vaccines that are not expected to be available soon? Concerning additional doses of the Pfizer vaccine, discussions are ongoing but it’s too early to disclose details. Any additions to the EU deal will be proportionally distributed. She mentions on the other hand, however, that the first doses, which have been called Pfizer’s Christmas present, are not proportional. Iceland will receive 10,000 doses, the same as Germany for example. Those doses cover a much larger proportion of our small population.
When further pressed on the vaccination timeline, Ásta mentions that the end of 2021 is the most pessimistic outlook, they believe they will be able to vaccinate the whole nation in the next three, four, or five months.
Ásta is asked about conflicting reports from Bloomberg and the Icelandic government on how many vaccine doses are available to Iceland. She mentions Iceland’s first three vaccine deals, which will altogether cover vaccinations for 235,000 people. She suggests that it’s possible the secured vaccine dose numbers other countries have reported may include the COVAX contract, which Iceland did not include in its reported numbers, as those doses are mostly intended for developing nations. Iceland has signed two vaccine contracts and is expected to sign the third one tomorrow. They’re working on an additional three but we only have exact dose numbers available for these first three contracts. The vaccine registrations will likely arrive in droves in the next few days and they have different properties that make them more or less suitable for different groups. This is a watershed moment in vaccination, we will learn a lot in the coming weeks and especially from other nations that begin to vaccinate. It’s very important for Iceland that other nations are successful in their vaccination efforts as well.
Ásta mentions the COVAX deal and its benefits for the developing nations and Víðir adds that the fight against COVID-19 won’t be over until it’s over everywhere.
Are Icelandic authorities considering banning travel from the UK, as other nations have done in light of the new strain of the virus that has emerged there? Víðir mentions that there’s heightened surveillance at the airport and they talk to most people arriving in the country. Some people have decided to meet their children at the airport, arriving home from studies abroad, and quarantine with them. If the arriving travellers then test positive, that’s a long quarantine and health risk. Plenty of hotels accept people who need to quarantine due to arriving from abroad, Víðir points out. Plenty of people are being diagnosed and we need to be careful about our reactions to that, so that no one is afraid to get tested or to disclose their symptoms or status. Víðir sends special regards to the people who will be in quarantine or isolation over Christmas and asks others to try to enjoy these strange times with their those closest to them. Víðir notes that this is the last briefing before Christmas. The next briefing will be held on Monday, December 28.
Iceland Review live-tweets authorities’ briefings every Monday and Thursday at 11.03am UTC.