Coronavirus secrets of the Faroes

The Faroe Islands' salmon industry helped it prepare for coronavirus testing. [Photo: Shutterstock]

The Faroe Islands has managed to test nearly 10% of its population for coronavirus and no one has died from the disease so far. Its virus strategy was undoubtedly helped by its remote location but the main reason for the rapid response is a surprising one: the humble salmon.

Despite lying 300km north of Scotland in the middle of the Atlantic, the Faroe Islands has not managed to avoid the reach of the coronavirus outbreak. But its method of mass-testing, tracing and quarantining suspected cases has paid off in a big way.

The Faroe Islands is one of only five European countries – with Georgia, Latvia, Liechtenstein, and Malta – that has not recorded any coronavirus deaths as of 6 April. It also leads the way in the percentage of the population tested.

Nearly 10% of the roughly 50,000 people that inhabit the islands has been tested for coronavirus, which has allowed the authorities to identify a total of 183 cases and track anyone who came into contact with infected patients.

Fifty-eight percent of those total cases have since recovered from the virus and only one person needed to be hospitalised. The government is now considering a “careful and partial” lifting of its lockdown after the Easter break.

Its quick and effective response was made possible by testing facilities in situ on the islands, which are able to process 600 tests per day in under eight hours. The reason behind such high capacity in such a small country is a viral epidemic among its fish that struck 20 years ago.

In the early 2000s, the lucrative Faroese fish industry – which accounts for 90% of the archipelago’s total exports – was hit hard by a viral disease which causes anaemia in salmon.

Infectious salmon anaemia virus (ISAV) is related to the influenza group of viruses and is often fatal to the Atlantic salmon, which is prized by Faroese fishermen. There is no cure once fish stocks are infected.

That is why the archipelago’s government decided to invest in advanced testing equipment and set up a dedicated laboratory to ensure fish health and keep the economy running. Now it was just a matter of adapting it for human tests.

Former Faroese finance minister Kristina Háfoss explained to EURACTIV how a decision was made early on by the health authorities to build capacity and how the laboratory was up and running by late February.

“If the tests had to be sent to Denmark for analysis, it would take days before the results were ready. That would not make it possible to follow the current strategy,” Háfoss said.

It is not the first time that fish-testing has proved useful during health scares. In 2009, the swine flu or H1N1 virus made its way to the Faroe Islands and that experience also helped laboratories prepare for the task currently at hand.

Háfoss pointed out that an added benefit of using equipment intended for treating fish diseases “gives more flexibility in terms of suppliers than most hospitals and laboratories, which should make it easier to restock should they run out of test kits and other supplies”.

Other countries have hit obstacles in procuring medical devices and equipment. Last week, the UK discovered that the millions of antibody testing kits it had ordered are not fit for use and the Netherlands realised a consignment of ventilators were not up to code.

Faith in the Faroese healthcare system will increase, according to lawmaker Háfoss, who said the “system is well equipped, the staff is well educated, and has shown to be even stronger than people normally believe”.

The Faroe Islands is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, along with Greenland, but is a self-governing country. According to Háfoss, her country has more doctors, beds and ventilators per person than its Scandinavian partner.

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Beyond treatment

Faroese efforts are not focused solely on treating the virus though, as the archipelago’s best and brightest are set to join the race to find a viable vaccine. Kristina Háfoss explained how extensive testing means health professionals have learned a lot about the pathogen already.

Scientists at the iNOVA research centre – based in the country’s capital, Tórshavn – are ready to start work on sequencing the coronavirus genome as soon as funding is secured.

CEO of the centre, Janus Vang, said that “Faroese researchers can create a research strategy that’s entirely based on local circumstances, and we now have the facilities to analyse our own data.”

He added that the “substantial amount of research data in the shape of record-high numbers of corona tests to accurately track the spread of the infection” can help map the genetic make-up of coronavirus, which will be a crucial step in finding a vaccine.

A Danish science foundation has told the Faroese authorities that they are eligible to apply for 50 million kroner (€6.6m) in research funding. The islands – although not an EU member – might also be able to tap into money from Brussels.

“We are part of the Horizon 2020 programme. Researchers from the Faroe Islands cooperate with researchers in other European countries on several projects, and hopefully there will also be funding and cooperation on Covid-19 research,” Háfoss told EURACTIV.

The European Commission announced in March hundreds of millions of euros in funding for vaccine research programmes, including €80 million for a German company that US President Donald Trump tried to tie to an exclusive vaccine deal.

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The Faroe Islands are not the only remote north Atlantic country making big strides in the virus fight: Iceland has also embarked on a vast testing spree – 25,000 people tested out of a population of 360,000 – and is reaping the benefits.

Iceland, unlike many other countries, has tested people regardless of whether they show symptoms and that non-discrimination has yielded more findings about the behaviour of the virus.

The head of the private company in charge of testing, Dr Kári Stefánsson, said the results collected so far reveal that 50% of patients testing positive for coronavirus said that they did not have any of the symptoms associated with it.

“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,” Stefánsson said, adding that the results will also provide insight into how the virus mutates.

The health authorities estimate that 50,000 Icelanders – 13% of the population – could be tested before the pandemic has run its course.

Stefánsson also refuted suggestions that Iceland was able to tackle the virus so effectively purely because of its relatively small population. “It’s nothing to do with the size of the population, this has to do with how well prepared it was,” he insisted.

The medical professional also said that the “amazing collection of talent” in many developed countries could have industrialised the testing process in the way Iceland and the Faroe Islands have but “behaved like nothing was happening”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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