Iceland has achieved something no other country has: tested 10% of its population for coronavirus, a figure far higher than anywhere else in the world.
No country or scientist or doctor has all the answers about the pandemic that has swept the globe, infecting more than 1.6 million people and killing at least 95,000.
But some places, such as tiny Iceland, Europe’s most sparsely populated country – pop. 364,134, broadly equivalent to the number of people in Tulsa, Oklahoma – may be better placed to deliver some types of coronavirus information, and even answers than most, at least in the short term, according to public health experts, international government officials and others involved in responding to the outbreak.
“The size of a place matters. It tracks with the number of introductions of the virus. It is no coincidence the places now doing (the best work) share this feature,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard University’s T.N. Chan School of Public Health.
To be clear, Iceland has not yet been able to provide definitive explanations for the most pressing coronavirus questions vexing scientists, politicians and publics the world over. Among them: its transmissibility; why it hits some people exceptionally hard and affects others only mildly; the most promising vaccines and treatments; actual mortality rates; and whether lifting lockdowns will later usher in a deadly second and third wave of new infections – if the so-called coronavirus curve, in fact, looks more like a loop.
“That’s a bit scary,” said Stefansson, who noted that Iceland is testing its citizens at random by selecting names out of the country’s main telephone directory, another large-scale testing strategy that has not been adopted elsewhere.
Stefansson said Iceland’s randomized tests revealed that between 0.3%-0.8% of Iceland’s population is infected with the respiratory illness, that about 50% of those who test positive for the virus are asymptomatic when they are tested, and that since mid-March the frequency of the virus among Iceland’s general population who are not at the greatest risk – those who do not have underlying health conditions or signs and symptoms of COVID-19 – has either stayed stable or been decreasing.