Iceland got it right with early, widespread virus testing

The country's coronavirus death toll of just 8 people is per capita among the lowest in the world

Iceland has provided a textbook example of how to get out ahead of a looming pandemic. Per capita it has tested more people for coronavirus than any other country and it got started a month before the first case was even confirmed in the tiny Nordic island nation. As a result by mid-April there are 1,727 confirmed cases, with 1,077 recovered, 8 in critical condition, and merely 8 lethal cases.

In a study published Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers from Icelandic universities and deCODE Genetics, a subsidiary of the US biotech giant Amgen, released the results of an all-out screening program launched on 31 January, long before the disease caused by the novel coronavirus had even been named COVID-19 and more than a month before the global pandemic was declared.

The study involved two testing drives. The first, starting 31 January, targeted people with symptoms of coronavirus infection and people who had travelled to high-risk areas - initially China and the Alps regions of Austria, Italy and Switzerland, or people who had come into contact with others who were in fact infected with the virus. It found that as of late March, 13.3% of more than 9,000 people who were screened tested positive. The first case of infection was confirmed on 28 February.

In a second testing program that began on 13 March, deCODE Genetics screened the general population of people with no coronavirus symptoms or who had mild symptoms, such as those of the common cold, and were not in quarantine. Here, the proportion of positive cases was much lower: between 0.6% and 0.8%. As of right now Iceland has carried out tests on over 37,000 people, which is more than 10% of its population.

That makes it by far the world leader in testing per capita - 10 times more than South Korea, which has won much praise around the world for acting quickly to test its people as the virus spread. This aggressive testing programme in Iceland apparently helped slow the spread of the virus by allowing health authorities to detect people who were infected and contagious but had no symptoms or thought they just had a cold or the flu.

When people were told they had tested positive, they had to self-isolate at home until 10 days after their fever had subsided or until they tested negative for the virus. And anybody who came in contact with them had to self-quarantine for two weeks. Unlike other countries, Iceland refrained from closing its day care facilities and elementary schools. High schools and universities did shut down on 16 March, followed by swimming pools, sports arenas, movie theatres, bars and restaurants.

So far Iceland has detected 1,727 cases of the virus, which is proportionally higher compared to countries that test only people who have been hospitalised. But its coronavirus death toll of just 8 people is per capita just a tenth of that of France, for instance. The government believes the apex of its chapter of the pandemic sweeping the globe is now passed, and plans to reopen high schools, universities, museums and beauty salons on 4 May.

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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