Iceland News Review: To Move, Or Not To Move, Back To Grindavík

INR

In this episode of Iceland News Review, business leaders and union officials have some very different ideas about whether or not to move back to Grindavík, where earthquakes and eruptions have done substantial damage to the town–and are very likely not done with the town yet.

Meanwhile, the Icelandic government is also pushing for new measures regarding asylum seekers and expanded police powers; parliamentarians want the Turkish Abductions investigated, genetically; a new app is here for learning Icelandic, and lots more.

NOTE: You can get the app, BÍN-kjarninn, on both the Apple App Store and Google Play. It is referred to as the DMII Core in this podcast, on account of the English name used for it on the Árnastofnun website.

Iceland News Review brings you all of Iceland’s top stories, every week, with the context and background you need. Be sure to like, follow and subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode!

Skull Traced to 18th-Century Danish Woman

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Residence of Minister

Human skull fragments, discovered under the floorboards in the attic of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Tjarnargata this fall, have now been analysed by deCODE genetics. Experts announced this Friday that the skull belonged to a Danish woman who most likely lived and died in Iceland in the 18th century, Vísir reports.

The discovery of the skull sparked curiosity, but no criminal activity was ever suspected. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, herself a scholar and author of crime novels, said at the time that finding human remains in such a noteworthy setting should provide intriguing story material.

Brown hair and brown eyes

At yesterday’s press conference at the Residence, however, it was confirmed that no foul play was involved. CEO of deCODE, Kári Stefánsson said that distant relatives of the woman can be found in Denmark, but that Danish authorities did not allow further inquiry into which Danish people she was related to. Geneticists Agnar Helgason and Sunna Ebenesersdóttir introduced the findings and revealed that the woman may have had brown hair and brown eyes. No descendants or relatives of hers exist in Iceland.

Agnar mentioned a theory that the woman’s remains may have originated from nearby Víkurkirkjugarður cemetery. Major construction has taken place in the area throughout the years and human remains have regularly been discovered as a result.

Recent renovations

Renovation work, including enhanced fire protection measures, recently commenced at the Minister’s Residence. Significant modifications were previously carried out in 1980, and additional upgrades were made toward the end of the 20th century. The investment in maintenance work comes as the residence has seen increased use in recent years, particularly for governmental meetings and similar functions.

The minister’s residence in Reykjavík has a storied history, originating as a one-story log house built in 1892 by Norwegian Hans Ellefssen for his whaling station in Önundarfjörður. Sold to Iceland’s first minister, Hannes Hafstein, for a nominal fee, the house was disassembled and moved to Reykjavík in the early 20th century. It served as the official residence for Icelandic prime ministers until the 1940s, with its last occupant being Hermann Jónasson. Over the years, the residence has hosted various dignitaries including David Ben Gurion and Duke Philip of Edinburgh, and has been used for receptions and meetings.

Ten COVID Vaccines in Final Trial Stages

Ten COVID-19 vaccines are now in their final trial stages, RÚV reports. All of the vaccinations have performed well in trials, but furthest along in its testing is the vaccine that is being developed by Swedish-British pharmaceutical company Astra Zeneca. Iceland is among the countries that have already made arrangements to buy vaccines from Astra Zeneca when it is ready for use and distribution.

See Also: Iceland to Buy 550,000 COVID-19 Vaccinations

Per international agreements that have been put in place regarding COVID-19 vaccination distribution, all nations that are part of COVAX, an international collaboration to accelerate COVID-19 vaccination, will promptly receive enough shots to vaccinate 20% of their populations.

“They’ll need to prioritize who they’ll start with,” explained Ingileif Jónsdóttir, a professor specializing in allergies at the University of Iceland who also works at deCODE Genetics. The rest of the countries’ populations will be vaccinated in a later phase. “One of the conditions of being a member of COVAX is accepting that it won’t be one or two countries that get everything first…[T]here are 74 countries that have been determined to be poor or of average wealth. This is being done in order to ensure that as far as it’s possible, people can’t pay to push to the front of the queue. That won’t serve anyone,” said Ingileif.

See Also: Iceland Contributes ISK 500 Million to International Vaccine Development Initiative

Ensuring that less wealthy countries receive proportional amounts of the vaccine at an affordable price is indeed a priority. “There is also a requirement that each dose costs no more than $3, which is really low,” continued Ingileif. “If we have a lot of countries where there is no protection [against the virus], then the other countries will be just as exposed as before.”

Asked about possible side effects or complications that could arise from being vaccinated against COVID-19, Ingileif pointed to other vaccines against viruses that have been safely used by millions of people for decades. Side effects from vaccination are extremely rare, she said, and not serious.

“It’s maybe one in 500,000 or one in a million people [who have serious side effects from vaccination], while the diseases that these vaccinations prevent were perhaps causing 10% of deaths and having other serious consequences. So if you compare the results of vaccination and are preventing mass deaths…the risk is infinitesimal,” Ingileif concluded.

DeCODE to Restart COVID-19 Screening of General Population

keflavik airport COVID-19 testing

Private biopharmaceutical company deCODE genetics will restart screening the general population for COVID-19. The company conducted COVID-19 testing of the general, asymptomatic population for around eight weeks this spring to determine how widespread the SARS-CoV-2 virus was in Icelandic society. Following a new cluster of community transmissions in Iceland, CEO of deCODE Kári Stefánsson decided to restart the initiative in order to determine whether the novel coronavirus is spreading in Iceland anew.

There are currently 21 active cases of COVID-19 in Iceland, around half of which are community transmissions. Contact tracing has revealed that a few of the infections have a common, as yet unknown source, leading experts to believe there are more infected, possibly asymptomatic individuals, yet to be found.

New Cases Suggest Virus is Spreading Again

“In the past few days, infections have sprung up with such a pattern that it has caused a bit of anxiety among us [at deCODE] and others,” Kári told RÚV. “For example, there are three people in the community who are infected with a virus with the same mutations that indicate that they come from the same source. And these are people who are not aware of having been connected in any way, and that leads one to the conclusion that there must be individuals between these parties, therefore there are more people out in the community infected with the same strain of this virus.”

Kári says that some of the individuals newly diagnosed had large amounts of the virus in their bodies and were therefore highly contagious. Added to that, there is a possibility that some individuals who attended a football tournament in Reykjavík were infected at the event. “And when you put all that together, it suggests that the virus has picked up again.”

Authorities Delay Loosening Restrictions

Health authorities have decided to delay the planned relaxing of COVID-19 restrictions by two weeks, from August 4 to August 18. Infectious diseases expert Kamilla Sigríður Jósefsdóttir stated that authorities were also considering tightening restrictions, both locally and at Iceland’s borders. An announcement on the matter is expected from authorities later today.

Iceland Will Combine COVID-19 Samples to Increase Testing Capacity

keflavik airport COVID-19 testing

The National University Hospital’s Virology Department will process COVID-19 test samples in groups of 10 in order to raise its testing capacity to 2,000 samples per day, RÚV reports. Private pharmaceutical company deCODE genetics announced two days ago it would halt its participation in Iceland’s COVID-19 testing after July 13, leading many to question whether the nation would be able to continue screening travellers entering from abroad for COVID-19. The National University Hospital’s Virology Department is the only institution in Iceland equipped to process COVID-19 samples, besides deCODE genetics.

Iceland began testing travellers entering the country on June 15 – from that date, passengers could opt between a COVID-19 test upon entry or 14-day quarantine. Some 25,950 tests have been administered at the borders since that date, finding only 11 active infections. As the infection rate is so low, Maríanna Garðarsdóttir, director of the National University Hospital’s research service department, says the Virology Department will being testing 10 samples at once in order to increase its capacity from a few hundred to around 2,000 tests per day.

If Group Tests Positive, Individual Samples are Tested

Due to huge global demand, Iceland is not expecting additional machinery for processing COVID-19 samples until October. “While we don’t have the capacity that we wish for, this is the main method we can use,” Maríanna told RÚV. Asked whether the hospital will be able to make the necessary changes by next week, when deCODE will pull out of the border testing program, she answered “We don’t have a choice. We’ll just do our best.”

The method works such that ten samples are mixed together and tested. If the combined sample comes up negative, there is no need for further testing. If it comes up positive, then each of the ten samples will be tested individually to determine which of them is (or are) positive. In a briefing yesterday, Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated there is little risk that this testing method is less precise than testing one sample at a time.

May Call in Vacationing Staff

The hospital’s director Páll Matthíasson stated that 18 hospital staff members that had been processing samples at deCODE will now be transferred to the Virology Department. Nevertheless, he added it was likely staff would be asked to cut short or postpone vacations.

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.

New COVID-19 Study Provides Both “Assurance and Alarm”

COVID-19

A new study published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine, examining the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus among the Icelandic populace (via targeting testing and by open-invitation and random-population screening), found that children under the age of ten had a lower incidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection than adolescents or adults and that females had a lower incidence than males. The researchers also noted that many individuals who tested positive reported having no symptoms (although symptoms almost certainly developed later among some of them). The study was a collaboration between researchers at deCODE genetics, Iceland’s Directorate of Health, and the National University Hospital.

Targeted Testing

COVID-19 was first diagnosed in Iceland on February 28. Testing, however, had begun a month earlier, on January 31, 2020, with individuals deemed to be at high risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection being targeted. These included mainly persons who were already symptomatic (cough, fever, body aches, and shortness of breath), who were returning to Iceland from regions classified as high risk by the health authorities, or who had been in contact with infected persons.

Roughly 6% of the nation tested

As of April 4, 2020, over 22,000 Icelandic residents had been tested for SARS-CoV-2 or roughly 6% of the entire populace. Of the 9,199 individuals who had been targeted for testing, 1,221 tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 (13.3%). Of the 13,080 individuals tested through population screening, 100 tested positive (0.8%): 87 of the 10,797 (0.8%) individuals who accepted an open invitation for testing and 13 of 2,283 (0.6%) individuals who were invited at random. Most individuals in the targeted-testing group who received positive tests early on in the process had recently travelled internationally, in contrast to those who tested positive later in the study.

Results

The study found that within the targeted-testing group, children under the age of ten were less likely to test positive for SARS-CoV-2 than individuals tens years of age or older (6.7% compared to 13.7%). In the population-screening group, no child under ten tested positive, compared to 0.8% of those ten years of age or older. Furthermore, a smaller percentage of females than males received positive results both in the targeted-testing group (11.0% vs. 16.7%) and in the population-screening group (0.6% vs. 0.9%).

The study suggests that as the proportion of infected individuals identified through population screening did not “change substantially during the screening period,” the containment efforts of the Icelandic authorities proved effective. These efforts include the testing of symptomatic individuals, which began one month before the first confirmed SARS-CoV-2 case in Iceland, along with various social-distancing measures that were imposed roughly two weeks after the first confirmed case. Furthermore, all participants who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 were required to self-isolate until ten days after their fever had subsided (or until they tested negative), and all persons who were in contact with individuals who tested positive were required to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Assurance and alarm

The researchers note that the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 infection among persons at high risk for infection and the stability of the infection rate in the general population provide “grist for both assurance and alarm,” as a large portion of those who tested positive reported no symptoms:

“Symptoms were common both in participants who tested positive and in those who tested negative for SARS-CoV-2 in the overall population-screening group. Notably, 43% of the participants who tested positive reported having no symptoms, although symptoms almost certainly developed later in some of them. During the study, the prevalence of symptoms decreased considerably in both testing groups (despite the stability of the SARS-CoV-2 infection rate), probably owing to a general decrease in other respiratory infections, which in turn may have been brought about through measures implemented to decrease the spread of SARS-CoV-2.”

Recently, CEO of DeCODE genetics Kári Stefánsson spoke to Iceland Review and shed light on the spread of the novel coronavirus in Iceland. For further information on the state of the COVID-19 epidemic in Iceland click here.

Plenty of Swabs for COVID-19 Testing

Fears last week that COVID-19 testing would need to slow in Iceland due to an anticipated shortage of testing swabs have turned out to be unfounded. As of Monday, in fact, it’s expected that the local supply of testing swabs will amount to 89,000.

Unexpected windfall

On Thursday afternoon, RÚV reported that the National University Hospital had found a stock of 6,000 testing swabs that were suitable for COVID-19 testing. “These are a different kind of swab that we didn’t actually know we could use,” explained Karl G. Kristinsson, head of the hospital’s virology ward. The swabs expire next month, but Karl said that there was nothing preventing them from being used in the meantime. This discovery brought the local supply of swabs to 9,000 and testing increased.

Later that day, it was concluded that 20,000 swabs donated by Reykjavík-based prosthetics company Össur are also suitable for testing. Össur had previously offered up the possibility of donating 100,000 swabs that it produced in-house, but ultimately, it was a different set of swabs – produced by a different company and used in Össur’s manufacturing division – that proved to be useable for COVID-19 testing. The swabs were tested extensively at the hospital and by deCODE Genetics before being put into use.

“The swabs from Össur are usable,” deCode Genetics posted on Facebook. “The first results yesterday didn’t give us cause to be optimistic, but after further investigation, we discovered there were errors in the test. After the tests were repeated today, the results were significant…Obviously, these 20,000 swabs will solve the shortage problem…and testing will resume in full force in the coming days.”

More swabs on the way

Thursday evening also brought the news that deCode Genetics was expecting a total of 60,000 swabs to arrive from China in the next few days. “I’m expecting that we’ll receive 10,000 swabs tomorrow and then 50,000 on Monday,” deCode CEO Kári Stefánsson told reporters. This means, plain and simple, that the swabs won’t be in short supply.”

“We’d like to take a random sampling in order to see what’s really going on in society,” Kári continued, explaining that he thinks it’s possible that deCode’s findings thus far might be exaggerated because the people who are the most likely to get tested are those who are already symptomatic of the virus or have other reason to believe they’ve been infected. deCode would like to make testing more widely available, however, said Kári, “to give people the opportunity to come and find out whether they have the virus or not.”