deCODE genetics to Join Efforts to Eradicate Scrapie

Ólafur Magnússon og frú bændur á Sveinsstöðum Trú frá S

The biopharmaceutical company that helped Iceland process COVID tests throughout the pandemic is now set to join another important project: the battle to eradicate the fatal disease scrapie from the Icelandic sheep population. RÚV reports that this spring, deCODE genetics will begin analysing genetic material from sheep to determine whether they carry a genotype that protects against the degenerative disease. Scrapie was recently diagnosed at a farm in Northwest Iceland, in a region where it had never been detected before.

Scrapie is often described as the ovine equivalent of mad cow disease. If a sheep tests positive for scrapie, the entire herd is culled, the entire farm’s hay must be destroyed, and the farm and its implements must be sanitised, either chemically or through fire. Even despite these measures, the disease can remain dormant in the environment for decades. The disease takes both a financial and emotional toll on farmers.

Researchers have recently discovered two genotypes in the Icelandic breed of sheep that appear to protect the animals from scrapie: ARR and T137. Breeding programs with those sheep have begun in efforts to eradicate the disease from Iceland.

Read More: Good Breeding

Until now, Icelandic researchers have had to send genetic samples to Germany for analysis in order to determine whether sheep carry the protective genotypes. With the help of deCODE genetics, it would be possible to test the samples locally. Researchers hope to test the existing stock more broadly as well as, of course, the offspring of the sheep that have already been found to carry the genotypes to see whether they have been passed down.

“If this collaboration with deCODE genetics works out, then hopefully it will be possible to test these samples in Iceland,” stated Eyþór Einarsson of the Icelandic Agricultural Advisory Centre. “And they also have a large capacity, and can handle the project, because the number of samples that will need to be analysed will multiply in the coming years as we get more rams in circulation that carry these genotypes.” Eyþór stated that there could be as many as 40,000 samples that need analysis by next year, and further research into the existing stock would also be necessary.

“This is really exciting and gives us hope and optimism for the future that there is a sort of definite response to this scrapie issue.”

Who Are We?

Kári Stefánsson - CEO of DeCode Genetics

The Icelandic nation’s identity is built on being a Nordic nation, descendants of Vikings. A nation that for centuries was isolated from other countries. Their homogeneity has been used for political purposes since the fight for independence, to explain Iceland’s uniqueness and justify its right to sovereignty. For some, this homo­geneity is even something to be protected, and the common knowledge of the nation’s origin is the foundation for that belief. But history is never as simple as “common knowledge” suggests.

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COVID-19 in Iceland: Randomise Vaccination to Achieve Herd Immunity Sooner

When Icelandic authorities finishing vaccination of priority groups, the general public will not be offered the jab by descending age groups, but will instead be randomly selected. Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist confirmed this to today. A recently published study from deCODE genetics found that this strategy would achieve herd immunity to COVID-19 sooner than vaccinating the population from oldest to youngest.

So far 29.89% of Iceland’s population have received one or both shots of COVID-19 vaccine. While vaccination efforts got off to a slow start on December 29, they have accelerated in pace with vaccine rollout. Icelandic authorities have stated they are on target to reach their goal of vaccinating 75% of the population (with at least one dose) by the end of July.

Priority Group Seven Out of Ten Now Being Vaccinated

In Iceland, COVID-19 vaccines have been administered according to priority groups defined by the Chief Epidemiologist. The first groups were front line healthcare workers and nursing home residents, followed by the oldest demographics. Currently, inoculations are being offered to the seventh priority group: individuals of all ages with chronic illnesses. The remaining three groups are school and welfare service staff; individuals vulnerable due to social or economic factors (such as homelessness); and the general population. These groups will not be invited to inoculation in descending age groups, but randomly.

“It will be somewhat random in relation to age,” Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated. “It will also be like that when for example teachers and people in social services are called in; it won’t be divided by age groups, it won’t go down from the oldest demographic, rather it will be somewhat random. We will try to hit two birds with one stone, that is to say to reach prioritised individuals and at the same time work toward herd immunity as well as possible.”

Herd Immunity Reached Sooner By Vaccinating Young People First

A study conducted by deCODE and presented to Icelandic authorities on April 29 concluded that herd immunity would be reached fastest in Iceland if the age groups who have yet to receive vaccination would be invited from youngest to oldest, in the opposite order from what Iceland, and most other countries, have been doing.

Katrín Jakobsdóttir COVID-19 mask
deCODE genetics. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and other government ministers at the presentation of a deCODE study on vaccination against COVID-19, April 29, 2021.

Vaccinating younger people would limit the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus more than vaccinating older groups. “In order to limit the epidemic to 100 people (assuming strict gathering regulations remained in place) we would have to vaccinate 75% of adults,” stated Páll Melsted, one of the scientists behind the study. “But if we start by vaccinating teenagers then we get to that point after vaccinating 55%. If we are going to get to that point sooner, we should start with those who are younger. We also achieve a similar goal if we do it completely randomly. Well, maybe it would be better politically to vaccinate both downwards and randomly, but I don’t intent to promote that.”

DeCODE CEO Kári Stefánsson warned against lifting restrictions quickly before herd immunity was achieved. “I think we should stick to the restrictions and be more Catholic than the Pope for a few more weeks and then we’ll come out of this well,” he stated.

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.

Over One Hundred Infections Linked to Same Group Infection

COVID-19 test tubes

There have been 127 domestic infections diagnosed with COVID-19 since June 15, including six cases that were diagnosed on Wednesday. RÚV reports that 120 of the infections have the same virus mutation and have, therefore, been connected to the same group infection that emerged at the end of July.

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason says that authorities have not yet managed to connect more than 30 clusters of infections. “This virus often causes little to no symptoms and it can be very difficult and it can be very difficult to find one individual who has infected two, unconnected individuals. It can be really tricky and I’m not sure how it’s going to work out.”

One man in his thirties was on a ventilator in intensive care but has now improved enough to be transferred to a general ward.

Three of the six people who were diagnosed on Wednesday were already in quarantine. All of these individuals are located within the capital area, except for one who is in the Westman Islands. A child under the age of five is among the group.

Virology staff to transfer to deCode to stay ahead of sample analysis

After this weekend, 18 employees from the National University Hospital’s virology department will move to deCode Genetics, where samples taken at the border will be analyzed, among others. deCode has better equipment for analyzing large batches of COVID-19 tests. Meanwhile, the virology department will continue to analyze samples from hospitals and health centres from outside the capital area. The virology department currently only has one machine to conduct sample analysis, but a model of the exact same make will arrive from Denmark this week. A much more powerful machine, which can process 4,000 samples will arrive in November.

Two Group Infections Active, but with Limited Spread

A group infection centred in the West Iceland town of Akranes led to extensive, random local testing on Saturday, RÚV reports. Happily, all 612 people who were tested returned negative results, indicating that the infection has not spread as extensively as was originally feared.

There are currently two active group infections in Iceland: one in Akranes, and one in Akureyri, in North Iceland. In Akranes, seven coworkers were diagnosed with COVID-19, as well as three of their family members. It is not currently known where this infection started. The random sampling in Akranes on Sunday was conducted by deCode Genetics in order to determine how far the infection had spread within the town. Authorities originally hoped to test 450 residents, but locals were quick to cooperate, meaning that an additional 162 samples could be taken – roughly 10% of the town’s population.

There are currently two people in isolation and 35 people in quarantine in and around Akureyri. Two of those who have active COVID-19 infections and 28 of those under quarantine are residents of the town. These new infections have not yet been traced, so it is currently not known if they are related.

One of the individuals in isolation in Akureyri is a tourist who arrived in the country earlier this week. The man tested negative for the virus at the border, but then showed symptoms after his arrival and a second test revealed that he had an active infection. The three members of his family with whom he was travelling are also in isolation with him in the quarantine hotel in Akureyri, where they will all remain for two weeks. The tourist’s family members do not, however, have the virus.

Thirteen community infections were diagnosed on Saturday, and one at the border, although it is uncertain as of yet if that individual has an active or old infection. At time of writing, 72 individuals are in isolation, 569 are in quarantine, and one person is hospitalised, although not in intensive care.

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

keflavik airport COVID-19 testing

Private biopharmaceutical company deCODE will extend its participation in Iceland’s border testing program by one week, RÚV reports. The company’s CEO Kári Stefánsson had announced deCODE would pull out of the border testing program after today, citing dissatisfaction in relations with the government and the urgency of resuming the company’s regular operations. DeCODE’s testing capacity is around three times that of the National University Hospital’s Virology Department – the only other facility in the country that can test COVID-19 samples.

Last week, deCODE genetics announced it would halt its participation in Iceland’s COVID-19 border testing after July 13, leading many to question whether the nation would be able to continue screening travellers entering from abroad for COVID-19. Following deCODE’s announcement, the National Hospital’s Virology Department began preparations to increase their testing capacity from around 500 samples per day to 2,000. The challenged proved insurmountable and deCODE has now agreed to extend their participation until the Virology Department completes the massive efforts required to increase its testing capacity.

Limited Testing Capacity May Lead to Flight Cancellations

The number of travellers entering Iceland has been steadily increasing since the country implemented COVID-19 tests at its borders as an alternative to mandatory quarantine on June 15. With deCODE genetics’ participation, the country has tested between 500 and 2,000 arriving travellers per day, setting a daily record of 2,118 yesterday, July 13.

These numbers have reached the upper limits of the country’s testing capacity, and RÚV reports that some airlines may be asked to cancel flights in the next two weeks in order to avoid exceeding daily testing limits. Icelandic authorities are meeting today to discuss the matter. The Virology Department’s intention to test COVID-19 samples in groups of 10 could presumably prevent such cancellations if implemented soon.

Authorities Consider Other Options

The border testing program has only found 12 individuals with active COVID-19 infections, of some 30,000 tested. These low positive rates mean that it may be possible to exempt travellers from certain areas from testing and quarantine and thus accept more travellers from abroad – currently only those arriving in Iceland from Greenland and the Faroe Islands are exempt from testing and quarantine. Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist has said, however, that more countries will not be added to this list until August. Authorities are also considering accepting foreign COVID-19 test certificates in lieu of border testing or quarantine.

Iceland’s COVID-19 Testing of Travellers Clarified

Covid 19 Þríeykið

Icelandic authorities will not accept certificates from abroad showing arriving travellers have tested negative for COVID-19 when the borders reopen on June 15. Instead, travellers will choose between being tested at Keflavík Airport (or other points of entry) or fulfilling a 14-day quarantine. The samples collected from travellers will be destroyed, but the data from them will be kept and used for research which is hoped to help in global efforts to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.

Testing Free for First Two Weeks

These were some of the clarifications that Icelandic authorities announced in a Reykjavík press conference today that clarified the country’s plan to reopen its borders on June 15. The conference was opened by Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, who confirmed previous statements that testing would be free for the first two weeks – after that, the cost would be paid by travellers. Katrín added that the samples will be destroyed but their data will be kept for research purposes.

In addition to being tested at the airport, travellers will be required to fill out an electronic form providing health details before they travel. They will also be encouraged to download Iceland’s official contact tracing app, which is being updated to contain information on Iceland’s healthcare system in a variety of languages.

Foreign Certificates Not Accepted

Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason announced that certificates from abroad stating that a passenger had tested negative for COVID-19 will not be accepted as a substitute for testing upon entry. The option had been discussed by authorities, but its execution proved too complicated for the time being. It may be reconsidered at a later point. Þórólfur added that authorities were looking into whether it was possible to require foreign tourists to have health insurance that covers them during their trip to Iceland.

Costly Project an “Investment in the Future”

The testing of arriving travellers will be carried out by state health centres in collaboration with the Virology Department of the National University Hospital and deCODE, a privately-owned company that has been conducting COVID-19 testing of Iceland’s general population.

Ensuring the country’s testing capacity can accommodate an influx of travellers will require investing in new equipment for the National University Hospital’s Virology Department. The Chief Epidemiologist admitted this would be costly, but assured that, like the reopening of borders, it is an investment in the future.

Þórólfur added that June 15 would also mark the next stage of loosening restrictions, and the current gathering ban of groups over 200 would likely be loosened to 500.

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.