How Has Iceland Managed To Test So Many People For COVID-19?

By Ivan Pesut on April 13 2020 in Answer

Healthcare workers in Iceland are even testing asymptomatic people. Image credit:
Healthcare workers in Iceland are even testing asymptomatic people. Image credit:
  • Iceland is testing asymptomatic people as well
  • There are no lockdowns imposed in Iceland
  • One of the world's best biopharmaceuitcal companies is located in Iceland

All around the world, governments are collaborating with top-notch epidemiologists to try to understand and control the COVID-19 outbreak. One of the main components in handling the virus is knowing its correct case fatality rate (CFR). CFR is the share of deaths in the total number of confirmed cases. Another key component is confirming as many cases as possible. If that is achieved, those who are infected can be effectively isolated from the rest of the population. To accomplish both of these, a really large number of tests have to be done. So far, it seems that Iceland is the only country that is managing to do just that. More than 25,000 people have been tested, which makes up around seven percent of the entire country’s population. Most importantly, this number also includes asymptomatic people.   

How Did They Do It?   

Iceland's low population has made testing and social distancing relatively easy. Photo by Olafur Johannesson on Unsplash

The test program was developed by the National University Hospital of Iceland in collaboration with Icelandic biopharmaceutical company deCODE Genetics. In 2019, Iceland had a population of 364,260 people. So, the fact that such a small country has a biopharmaceutical company is on its own a pretty astonishing thing. Even more, deCODE Genetics is one of the most successful biopharmaceutical companies in the world. They managed to sequence full genomes of 2,635 Icelanders and gather other genetic information on more than 100,000 people. It is no wonder then that the COVID-19 testing is so successful.   

So far, over 1,500 cases have been confirmed with six deaths in total. Iceland is still in the early stages of the outbreak, so it is expected that these numbers will rise in the following weeks. Their CFR is 0.3 percent, which is a much lower ratio than in the majority of other countries. Even if the progression of the outbreak continues to rise in the same dynamic, the CFR is still expected to be significantly lower than in other countries. DeCODE Genetics intends to conduct at least 50,000 tests, including volunteers who are asymptomatic.   

What Can We Learn From Iceland?  

Aggressive testing means better contact tracing. Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

If we apply the infection rate to the rest of the population, about 3,500 people in the country should already be infected. That would imply that the CFR is actually about 0.1%. This CFR, if we are to take the results as the representative for the global population, would put COVID-19 in range with regular flu. Also, the current projection from the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) predicts the CFR of 0.8%, along with 0.9% from Imperial College. Experts note that these predictions are more likely to happen.   

The biggest lesson Iceland has given us is that an aggressive approach to testing can give great results. A lot of testing means better contact tracing. This allows the government to effectively quarantine all of those who could carry the virus into the population. Because of such a proactive and severe approach, Iceland’s economy and everyday life continue as usual as there have been no general lockdowns imposed. Schools and stores and working regularly, everyone is taking care to respect measures during bigger social gatherings and life, at least for now, goes on.   

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