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.