Iceland Opens Borders to Vaccinated Travellers from Outside Europe

Reynisfjara - Vík - suðurland

Travellers from outside Europe can now visit Iceland if they can present a valid certificate confirming they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or have antibodies to the disease. Iceland first closed its borders to travellers outside the EEA/EFTA in late March of 2020. It loosened restrictions on travellers from a handful of countries that summer, later tightening them again as the pandemic picked up speed across the globe.

Vaccinated travellers and travellers who have recovered from COVID-19 are still required to undergo one COVID-19 test upon arrival to Iceland, as data has shown they may still carry and transmit the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Both groups are exempt from the five-day quarantine required of all other travellers entering Iceland from abroad as well as the follow-up test administered five days after arrival.

Read more about the requirements for travel to Iceland in 2021 post COVID-19.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Continued Border Testing Key to Christmas Celebrations

keflavik airport COVID-19 testing

Icelanders can tentatively look forward to Christmas with fewer restrictions if border testing measures are maintained, stated Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason in a COVID-19 briefing this morning. Authorities stated that it was too early to celebrate over dropping daily case numbers, and the coming days will determine whether harsher restrictions that took effect last week have been effective in containing Iceland’s third wave of COVID-19 infection.

Iceland reported 50 new domestic COVID-19 cases yesterday, 66% of which were in quarantine at the time of diagnosis. Active COVID-19 infections in the country number 1,022, close to the record of 1,096 reached on April 5. There are currently 23 COVID-19 patients in hospital and 2 on ventilators. At the briefing, Director of Health Alma Möller stated that the National University Hospital was managing the load well for the time being, but could expect increased strain in the coming weeks as COVID-19 symptoms worsen among those newly diagnosed.

Antibody Parties are Not a Good Idea

When questioned about a young man who proposed throwing a party for all Icelanders who had antibodies to the virus, the Chief Epidemiologist stated that he did not recommend such events. “I think it would maybe provoke people to try to get the virus so they could then go party and that could turn out badly.” Alma added: “Also people [with antibodies] can still have the virus on their hands and transmit it between people, though they themselves are immune. So we encourage everyone who has had COVID-19 to exercise caution regarding preventative measures.”

Chief Superintendent Víðir Reynisson also added that the regulations in place apply equally to everyone, regardless of whether they’ve had the virus or not. “We are in a country where the same laws apply to everyone and the same rules to everyone, so there will be no change regarding how many people can congregate based on whether they have antibodies or not.”

Christmas Celebrations Tied to Border Testing

Reporters asked the panel whether Icelandic residents could expect regulations to be relaxed by Christmastime. Þórólfur stated that he hoped the current measures would be successful in containing the virus, but relaxing restrictions would also depend on maintaining current border testing measures. Since Iceland implemented double testing and five-day quarantine at the border in August, Þórólfur says, no new strains of the virus have been detected in the country. Those measures will be in place until at least December 1.

Iceland Review live-tweets Icelandic authorities’ COVID-19 briefings. The next briefing is scheduled for Thursday, October 15.

COVID-19 Antibodies Last for Months, Icelandic Research Shows

COVID-19 test tubes

An Icelandic study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has found that COVID-19 antibodies last at least four months without declining. The research suggests there is little likelihood of developing COVID-19 twice. It also suggests vaccines could be effective in preventing infection over a long period, even with just one or two doses.

The study measured antibodies in samples from 30,576 people, including 1,237 who had recovered from SARS-CoV-2 infection. Among those who had recovered, antibodies proved higher in older people and those who were hospitalised. Men tended to develop more antibodies than women, and there was a positive correlation between the severity of illness and the amount of antibodies. Those who showed only slight symptoms or were asymptomatic general developed fewer antibodies to SARS-CoV-2.

One- or Two-Dose Vaccine

Kári Stefánsson, CEO of DeCODE genetics, which conducted the study, told RÚV that in light of the study results, a vaccine could provide relatively long-term protection from infection. “This indicates that antibodies formed during vaccination should be able to last considerably,” Kári stated. “You do not need to be vaccinated more than once or maybe twice, but in any case, it seems to last considerably.”

Read More: Iceland to Buy 550,000 Doses of COVID-19 Vaccine

Reports of Reinfection Not the Norm

Kári stated that rare reports of cases abroad where individuals are believed to have been infected more than once should not cause alarm for the average person. “When 25 million people have been infected with this virus, it must have reached people who are diverse when it comes to the immune system. But that doesn’t mean that ordinary people who have been infected are at high risk of reinfection.”

Up to Five Thousand COVID-19 Tests Analysed a Day

COVID-19 test tubes

The formal collaboration between the virology department of Iceland’s National University Hospital and deCODE Genetics began on Monday, allowing specialists to analyse larger batches of COVID-19 tests. RÚV reports that as many as 5,000 samples can be analysed a day in deCode’s facilities; specialists are working from 7am to 11pm to efficiently meet the demand.

Current data shows that during the first six weeks of COVID-19 testing at the border, most of the detected infections were old. In recent weeks, however, most of the infections have been active. Since July 22, there have been 53 active infections detected via border screenings. Seventeen people have been found to have antibodies to the COVID-19 virus.

See Also: DeCODE Extends Participation in COVID-19 Border Testing as Tourist Numbers Strain Capacity

A private biopharmaceutical company and genetics research laboratory, deCODE Genetics initially oversaw border screenings in Iceland but withdrew from the process in mid-July. Later that month, following a new cluster of community transmissions in Iceland, deCODE CEO Kári Stefánsson decided to restart the initiative in order to determine whether the novel coronavirus was spreading in Iceland anew.

The company’s current collaboration with the hospital’s virology department was arranged because its facilities are better equipped to process and analyse large quantities of COVID-19 samples. All COVID-19 tests taken at the border and at health clinics within the capital area are now tested at deCODE. Samples taken at health clinics and hospitals elsewhere in the country are analyzed at the hospital’s virology department.

During peak arrival windows, specialists working in the deCODE labs receive large batches of swab samples from Kaflavík airport every hour.

A complex process with quick results

Sample analysis at deCODE is conducted in two laboratories. In the first lab, samples are recorded within a specially designed computer system. A portion of each sample is placed in a tray—94 samples total. A compound is added to each sample that makes it possible for researchers to isolate the RNA in each sample.

The trays are then placed in one of four machines that carry out the 40-minute isolation process.

Next, the isolated RNA samples are transferred to the second laboratory, where a substrate is added. The samples are then transferred to a robot that mixes them for ten minutes. The robot can mix up to 380 samples at once.

Once the mixing is complete, the samples are placed into another device which conducts a PCR test, which amplifies their genetic material. This process takes 80 minutes.

At this point, it’s possible to see which samples have tested positive for COVID-19.

deCODE to Halt Participation in COVID-19 Testing, CEO Says

In an open letter to Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir published in Vísir today, CEO of deCODE Kári Stefánsson urges the government to establish an Institute of Epidemiology, claiming his biopharmaceutical company will halt its participation in the country’s COVID-19 testing after July 13. DeCODE has tested around five times as many people for the novel coronavirus as Iceland’s National University Hospital, the only other institution in the country equipped to process viral samples, according to Kári. Iceland’s Director of Health says the country’s border screening initiative will have to be rethought.

Iceland’s first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed on February 28. Shortly after, DeCODE offered to conduct COVID-19 screening of the general (asymptomatic) population in order to determine how widespread the virus was in Icelandic society. “Unfortunately, the only viral laboratory within the healthcare system got into trouble as the epidemic developed, so we ended up handling almost all of the screening in the country for a period of a few weeks whether of the sick or healthy,” Kári writes. “It is therefore not unlikely that disease prevention would have proved difficult without our involvement.”

Criticises Government’s Failure to Involve deCODE in Planning

Kári points out that deCODE has not only administered and processed COVID-19 tests, but also assisted the Chief Epidemiologist and other authorities in analysing the results, as well as being the only institution to test for COVID-19 antibodies in Iceland. Yet, Kári says, when the epidemic subsided locally and the government started making plans to reopen its borders, it did so without consulting deCODE. Despite no efforts to involve the company in planning, “it was assumed in the plan that was put together that deCODE would offer to handle all sorts of aspects of the screening. We agreed to take part in the beginning (not forever), but when we did not see any real plans for someone to take over for us who had the ability to do so, we became uneasy,” Kári writes.

Proposes Institute to Address Limits of Healthcare System

Kári then reproduces a letter he sent to the government of Iceland, dated July 1, 2020, in which he advocated for the establishment of an Institute of Epidemiology. Such an institute would be able to redress the healthcare system’s current lack of capacity for COVID-19 testing, while also analysing results, processing data, and assisting in decision making regarding the current pandemic and future ones. Kári suggested the institute should be under the Directorate of Health, and offered deCODE’s assistance in establishing it, including housing it in the company’s headquarters.

Kári included a response to his letter, sent by the Prime Minister three days later. In the letter, Katrín thanks Kári for his contribution to the efforts in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in Iceland, and states the government will take his proposal into consideration. She also tells Kári that a project manager will be hired to “analyse how to strengthen the healthcare system’s infrastructure to cope with epidemics of the future, taking into account your proposal and the experience we have gained in the struggle against COVID-19.” The project manager will also “assist the Chief Epidemiologist to curb the current pandemic in close collaboration with you and your company.”

Says deCODE Will Stop COVID-19 Testing After July 13

“It is clear from this answer of yours that this problem is not as urgent for you as it is for us,” Kári continues in his letter. “Our view is that all of your conduct toward deCODE and that of the Minister of Health in this issue has been marked by disrespect for us, our contribution, and the task we have undertaken in this epidemic.”

Kári then goes on to state that deCODE will cease all communications regarding SARS-CoV-2 with the Chief Epidemiologist and Director of Health today, and will not process any COVID-19 tests received after next Monday, July 13.

Kári is known for lambasting politicians in open letters and articles published in Icelandic media. In 2016, he called former Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð’s decision to build a new National Hospital elsewhere than planned a “declaration of war,” going on to criticise his performance as Prime Minister. That same year, he demanded former President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson divulge information on his and his wife’s finances. He had expressed dissatisfaction with Iceland’s Minister of Health in a televised interview earlier this year.

Director of Health, Chief Epidemiologist Respond

Both Iceland’s Director of Health Alma Möller and Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated that in light of Kári’s announcement, the country’s border screening program would need to be rethought. They both praised deCODE for the company’s contribution to Iceland’s fight against COVID-19. “They have done a great job for all of us,” stated Þórólfur. Both officials said they could not yet say how authorities would respond to the situation.

A Very Small Minority of Icelanders Immune to COVID-19

New data provided by deCODE Genetics shows that .9% of the Icelandic nation has antibodies for the COVID-19 virus, RÚV reports. The data excludes people who are currently infected with the virus or under quarantine.

Kári Stefánsson, the CEO of deCODE, explained that the data indicates that the vast majority of Icelanders is still susceptible to the COVID-19 virus. “A very small minority has become immune to the virus,” he remarked, “such that if we have a resurgence of infections, we’ll have to respond very quickly and decisively.”

DeCODE is currently working with Canadian scientists to try and create antibodies for the COVID-19 virus. Kári says the experiments have been enjoyable thus far. In theory, this involves isolating “[w]hite blood cells, which create antibodies in patients…We’ll then take proteins from the virus to make the selection and make antibodies that the white blood cells have formed, replicate it, and use to make antibodies in really large quantities.”

Kári said that he had no doubt that they would eventually succeed in making antibodies, but that it was simply a question of how long the process would take.

Iceland Collects Blood Samples to Track Spread of Virus

COVID-19 Press conference Þórólfur Guðnason Alma Möller V'iðir Reynisson

Starting on Monday, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and deCODE Genetics will begin collecting blood samples from the general public in order to help determine how widespread COVID-19 infection has been within the Icelandic population, RÚV reports.

Þórólfur said he expects tens of thousands of Icelanders to voluntarily donate blood samples for the survey. People undergoing blood tests for other reasons will also be asked to donate a sample. The blood samples will also be tested for antibodies; those who give blood will be notified of their test results as soon as they become available.

During the daily COVID-19 press conference on Sunday, Director of Health Alma Möller said that there will soon be a review of how general health care services were prioritised during the height of the epidemic. Health care authorities had been concerned that people needing medical services would refuse to seek them out, but there is currently no indication that this occurred.

Alma also noted that the number of deaths in Iceland did not increase during the epidemic. Quite to the contrary, the number of deaths has gone down. There are various possible explanations for this, including a decrease in other infectious diseases and fewer accidents while Icelandic society has largely been on pause.