Coronavirus: Iceland’s mass testing finds half of carriers show no symptoms

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As the coronavirus pandemic surges worldwide, each piece of data counts in the fight against the deadly pathogen.

But significant findings about the contagious disease are coming from an unlikely place: Iceland, the tiny Island state with a population of just 364,000 people, where authorities are testing large numbers of the population – without imposing any lockdown or curfew.

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As of Sunday night, the country’s health authorities and the biotechnology firm deCode Genetics have tested more than 10,300 people. That might not sound like a large number, compared to the around 350,000 Americans who have been tested for coronavirus according to the COVID Tracking Project, but it is a far higher percentage of tests per capita - a ratio Icelandic authorities have claimed is the highest in the world.

But it is not just the numbers of people being tested that is unusual about Iceland’s approach.

Unlike other countries, where people are only tested if they exhibit symptons of coronavirus or have come into contact with known spreaders, the country is testing thousands of people from the general population who don’t exhibit any symptoms of the virus whatsoever – helping to reveal information about the nature of the pathogen and its symptoms.

General view shows city of Reykjavik, seen from Hallgrimskirkja church, 2017. (File photo: Reuters)
General view shows city of Reykjavik, seen from Hallgrimskirkja church, 2017. (File photo: Reuters)

While Iceland has only 218 confirmed cases among its tiny population, its testing program has produced crucial data about the coronavirus - that half of those who were tested positive have no coronavirus symptoms.

This confirms multiple pieces of scientific research that have shown that coronavirus is spread more through people with the virus who show no sign of being sick. Researchers from The University of Texas at Austin had found out that more than 10 percent of patients were infected by somebody who has the virus but does not yet have symptoms.

“Early results from deCode Genetics indicate that a low proportion of the general population has contracted the virus and that about half of those who tested positive are non-symptomatic,” Thorolfur Guðnason, Iceland’s chief epidemiologist, was quoted as saying BuzzFeed News. “The other half displays very moderate cold-like symptoms.”

Read more: Coronavirus symptoms: Loss of smell, taste, might signal infection

Icelandic authorities claimed they had tested a higher proportion of the citizens than anywhere else in the world.

“Iceland’s population puts it in the unique position of having very high testing capabilities with help from the Icelandic medical research company deCode Genetics, who are offering to perform large scale testing,” Guðnason said to Buzzfeed.

“This data can also become a valuable resource for scientific studies of the virus in the future,” he added.

Find out the latest news about the coronavirus pandemic here.

40 mutations of the virus

Iceland's high-volume testing also involves genetic sequencing of the different samples of the virus, which helps researchers to investigate the various mutations of the virus.

Icelandic scientists say testing has already revealed that there are at least 40 mutations of coronavirus in Iceland, and the virus might develop to become more contagious, but less dangerous. These variants can also act as the fingerprints of the virus to trace its origin. Seven of the infected people were traced to an undisclosed football match in England, the team said.

Read more: How long can coronaviruses survive in a freezer? Up to two years, warns expert

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