How Iceland Could Hold the Key to Understanding Coronavirus

Using its unique population data, a small genetics company is planning to screen 15,000 asymptomatic people to learn about the virus.

A small Icelandic genetics company made headlines in 2013 when it developed an app to prevent accidental incest in the insular country's dating scene. That was kind of a bust, but now the same company is using its genetics expertise to screen thousands of people for COVID-19.

Dr. Kári Stefánsson, CEO of deCODE Genetics, stresses the company's expertise in population data has contributed to our understanding of schizophrenia, cancer and autism, and he feels a social responsibility to work on the pandemic.


“I think we were basically waiting for a task like screening for this virus,” he says.

Stefánsson's team has been working overtime screening 1,000 asymptomatic people a day for the highly contagious coronavirus, with a goal of screening a total 15,000.

It's quite a logistical challenge to manage all the people. A booking system has been set up to keep those being tested -- and the testers -- safe. The aim is never to have two individuals in the same room at the same time, and so far, the system's working well.

About 1 percent have tested positive for the virus, Stefánsson estimates. Most appear to have been infected with COVID-19 in the Alps — probably on skiing holidays, he said — as well as the United States, and one case likely coming from Iran.

By sequencing the virus, deCODE is able to determine how it spreads.

“If you're in a room with two individuals who are infected, and you yourself get infected, we could determine from whom of these two individuals you contracted the virus,” says Stefánsson. “I think we are going to be learning an awful lot about the virus by doing this.”