Colby Cosh on the testing secrets of the North Atlantic: World-famous businessmen and local veterinarians

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There are two countries at the top of the league tables in testing their populations for SARS-CoV-2: the Faroe Islands, a self-governing archipelago north of Scotland that belongs to the Kingdom of…

There are two countries at the top of the league tables in testing their populations for SARS-CoV-2. One of them is not quite an independent sovereign state: it’s the Faroe Islands, a self-governing archipelago north of Scotland that belongs to the Kingdom of Denmark. The other is Iceland. Each of these North Atlantic neighbours has tested about 10 per cent of its entire citizenry for the COVID-19 virus, and has benefited from having such complete coverage.

In the case of Iceland the person is world-famous. It’s Kári Stefánsson, the founder and CEO of the Reykjavik-based company known in English as deCODE Genetics. It is not quite enough to say that Stefánsson is a controversial figure in his homeland. An Icelandic novelist once wrote a satirical book which included a lightly disguised portrait of Stefánsson as a villainous national Faust, and in the movie adaptation Stefánsson himself appeared in the role.

But the dream survives with a few tatters in its garments. It turned out that Icelanders were quite prepared to assist a compatriot with genetic research on the simple condition that they were asked nicely and assured of privacy. deCODE has records of whole genomes for something like 60,000 Icelandic adults. The company hired a partner to build an online family tree covering just about every human of Icelandic descent known to have existed, and made it public.

That’s why Iceland was ready for battle with a virus ― and how it might now help meaningfully with everybody else’s effort. Already deCODE’s testing capacity has given the world the first truly random test for presence of the virus in asymptomatic individuals, demonstrating that SARS-CoV-2 infections outnumber cases of COVID-19 illness about two to one in Iceland. Within days we should know how many of the asymptomatic Icelanders eventually got sick.

 

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