COVID-19 Could Be Asymptomatic in Half of Cases, New Icelandic Data Suggest

Throughout the COVID-19 epidemic, researchers and public health officials have stressed the dangers associated with transmission from asymptomatic carriers. Part of the problem, though, has been establishing just how many cases of the virus do not result in symptoms. New data from Iceland are now suggesting that COVID-19 infection could be asymptomatic in up to 50 percent of cases, meaning the world’s total case load could be much larger and widespread than currently believed. Here’s what you need to know about the new Icelandic data and what they could mean for the ongoing fight against coronavirus.


What Does Iceland’s Testing Data Say?


According to Iceland’s testing data, approximately 50 percent of citizens who test positive for the disease display no symptoms at the time of testing. While it is important to note that this group represent both truly asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases, these numbers are roughly double what had previously been estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and other worldwide health organizations.


As of the time of this writing, Iceland had confirmed 1,701 infections, resulting in eight deaths. 889 infected patients had recovered, and only 9 patients were currently in intensive care out of 39 cases in which hospitalization was necessary.


What Makes the Icelandic Data More Complete?


With all of the information coming out about COVID-19 so quickly, it’s often difficult to decide what data to pay attention to. In the case of the Icelandic information on asymptomatic positive tests, though, there’s a very good reason to believe that the data is more complete than what other countries have come up with. Thanks to the island’s relatively small population and robust medical system, Iceland has managed to test about 10 percent of its citizens, far more than any other country has so far managed.


Iceland’s data is also more complete due to a degree of randomization introduced into testing. In most countries, tests are mostly conducted to confirm symptomatic cases. Iceland, by contrast, has tested by randomly selecting citizens from a phone directory. As a result, Iceland’s test results are less likely to skew toward people already experiencing symptoms, making them a much better measure of asymptomatic cases.


What Does This Mean for the Pandemic?


The higher rate of asymptomatic cases has many possible implications for the ongoing pandemic. While it does mean that the disease is likely spreading faster than previously believed, it also suggests that the mortality rate may be somewhat lower than previously reported estimates. Most of all, it underlines the need for further testing and research to establish more concrete facts about the COVID-19 coronavirus.