Half of Iceland's COVID-19 spreaders may be asymptomatic, early data suggest

Coronavirus test in Croatia
(Image credit: Denis Lovrovic/AFP/Getty Images)

Iceland is giving the world a unique look at how the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is spreading. The Nordic island nation of 360,000 started testing for the virus in early February, and it chose to test both people suspected of having COVID-19 and, notably, people who haven't shown any symptoms. DeCODE, a biotech company working on behalf of Iceland's chief epidemiologist, is testing the general population; so far, it has screened about 9,000 people, or about half of the 17,900 Icelanders tested for the virus, CNN reports.

More than 99 percent of deCODE's volunteer subjects tested negative, but of the roughly 1 percent who tested positive, half said they hadn't shown any symptoms of the disease, company founder Dr. Kári Stefánsson told CNN. "What it means in my mind, is that because we are screening the general population, we are catching people early in the infection before they start showing symptoms." The 50 percent of positive tests from asymptomatic people has been fairly consistent, though the sample is pretty small. DeCODE expects to gather a larger sample of at least 50,000 people, or roughly 13 percent Iceland's population, before the virus peters out.

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Peter Weber, The Week US

Peter has worked as a news and culture writer and editor at The Week since the site's launch in 2008. He covers politics, world affairs, religion and cultural currents. His journalism career began as a copy editor at a financial newswire and has included editorial positions at The New York Times Magazine, Facts on File, and Oregon State University.