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Icelandic doctor says the country’s strategy to track spread of coronavirus can be used in US

Iceland’s strategy to track the spread of the coronavirus can be used in the U.S., deCODE Genetics CEO Kári Stefánsson told CNBC on Wednesday.

Stefánsson, whose Reykjavík-based company is known for its work analyzing the human genome, noted the obvious size differences between the U.S. and Iceland. 

For starters, the U.S. has about 330 million people while Iceland has just about 347,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  

But Iceland’s ability to test around 10% of its population and deploy robust contact tracing when someone is diagnosed with Covid-19 should not be seen as something only small countries can do, Stefánsson argued in an interview with CNBC’s Meg Tirrell

“It ought to be even easier in a country of your size with your resources, with this incredible amount of talent you have,” Stefánsson said of the U.S. “If you were to bring this all to bare, you would easily be able to do the same thing as we.” 

Iceland has 1,727 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and eight deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. 

In the U.S., where about 3.2 million people have been tested for the disease, there are more than 634,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, per JHU data. Nearly 28,000 have died. 

Stefánsson, a neurologist who was formerly a professor at Harvard University, said that in addition to an early commitment to widespread testing, Iceland’s government also deployed “an extraordinarily vigorous” system of contact tracing. 

This involves putting everyone who tested positive in isolation and then determining all the people who have been in contact with people who have the disease, he explained. Those who came into contact with an infected person are put in quarantine, he said. 

“By doing this, we seemed to have brought this epidemic under some sort of control,” he argued. 

Residential properties stand on the city skyline in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Arnaldur Halldorsson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Stefánsson said the strong academic system in the U.S. is a vital weapon in the battle against Covid-19. 

“You have all of this talent, all of this equipment in your universities, that could simply be drafted to apply to this epidemic,” he said. “You could have the universities do the testing. You could have the universities do the analysis of the data and help with planning how to deal with it.” 

Despite having far more people, Stefánsson suggested the U.S. has probably “5,000 times more resources” than Iceland.  

“So this is all a question of the will, the desire, the determination, to do this properly and my guess is to do that, there needs to be some sort of a central control,” he said. 

Stefánsson said an early, aggressive response to the Covid-19 outbreak is more important in limiting its spread than overall population or population density. 

“The entire world knew that there was an epidemic mounting in China in January,” he said. “Basically, the authorities in Iceland prepared for it. They started to test before the virus had arrived. And I think there is nothing else that matters here.”  

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