A coronavirus test for anyone? In Iceland, it's happening
In coronavirus hot spots around the globe, hospitals are so overwhelmed with sick patients that they're running out of lifesaving supplies. And in many places, testing for the virus has been reserved for people who meet specific medical and travel-related criteria.
But one of the challenges that has made the pandemic so difficult to control is that research increasingly suggests a large number of people infected with the virus may show no symptoms - as many as 25%, according to U.S. officials. That means that in places with limited testing, doctors and scientists know they are missing people who are infected with the virus - and may be spreading it to others.
So what if anyone could be tested?
That's what scientists in Iceland are now trying to make happen - and they hope their approach could yield important insights that will not only help the country handle its own outbreak more efficiently, but also help researchers elsewhere.
In late February, Iceland confirmed its first case of the virus: a patient who had recently returned home after a trip to Italy. Over the next several weeks, as the pandemic seeped into communities around the world, other cases began to pop up across the island, home to about 364,000 people.
Icelandic officials quickly embarked on an ambitious contact-tracing initiative that helped identify and isolate individuals who had come into contact with people diagnosed with the virus - and urged them into isolation.
Meanwhile, the Reykjavik-based deCODE Genetics, a subsidiary of U.S.-based biotechnology company Amgen, teamed up with the country's public health officials to rapidly expand the country's testing capacity.
Now, anyone in Iceland who wants to be tested for coronavirus can be. They do not need to have recently traveled abroad or have come into contact with anyone diagnosed with the virus. They don't even need to show any symptoms.
The initiative has drawn thousands of people from the general population in for testing. Between swabs carried out free by deCODE and those conducted at Icelandic hospitals for those showing symptoms, about 19,500 people - more than 5% of the country's total population - had been tested for the virus as of Wednesday. More than 1,200 cases had been confirmed, and two people had died. More than 7,800 others were in quarantine, and more than half of those who had been diagnosed with the virus were already in quarantine at the time of their diagnosis, according to official government data.
As a point of comparison, the United States had conducted more than 1.1 million tests as of Wednesday, according to the COVID Tracking Project, which would amount to testing roughly 0.34% of the total population. (My Washington Post colleagues wrote last week that the United States has ramped up its testing in recent weeks but still lags behind many other countries in tests per capita.)
"It looks to us now that we have this relatively under control in Iceland," Kari Stefansson, chief executive of deCODE Genetics, told this column. "We are clearly optimistic and we will continue to screen. We are increasing the effort."
The deCODE testing in Iceland is free, but Stefansson said the data collection isn't considered completely random, because individuals still opt in to the swab and "those who respond are most likely to be those who are more concerned than the rest of the population."
Still, the results have provided some interesting data. Of those who tested positive, Stefansson said, about half were asymptomatic at the time of their testing, though they could have developed symptoms later on. The tests have also revealed genetic information that researchers can use to trace the virus's geographic spread.