Sweden, unlike its Nordic neighbors Denmark and Norway – and virtually every other country in the western world – has resisted extensive lockdown restrictions to stem the coronavirus outbreak. Instead, it’s largely kept society, including schools and restaurants open, and relied on voluntary social-distancing measures that appeal to the public’s sense of self-restraint. Polls show the strategy is broadly supported by most Swedes.
Scientists in Sweden and abroad have accused the country of dangerously pursuing “herd immunity” – the idea that by building a broad base of recovered infections in society the disease will eventually stop spreading because a majority of people will not be susceptible. “Herd immunity” is usually achieved by vaccination and takes place when a large enough percentage of the population are immune.
Anders Tegnell, chief epidemiologist at Sweden’s Public Health Agency – the nation’s top infectious disease official and architect of Sweden’s coronavirus response –denied that “herd immunity” formed the central thrust of Sweden’s containment plan, in an interview with USA TODAY. Yet he also said the country may be starting to see the impact of “herd immunity.”
What’s the latest from Sweden?
Tegnell: We are doing two major investigations. We may have those results this week or a bit later in May. We know from modeling and some data we have already – these data are a little uncertain – that we probably had a transmission peak in Stockholm a couple of weeks ago, which means that we are probably hitting the peak of infections right about now. We think that up to 25% of people in Stockholm have been exposed to coronavirus and are possibly immune. A recent survey from one of our hospitals in Stockholm found that 27% of staff there are immune. We think that most of those are immune from transmission in society, not the workplace. We could reach herd immunity in Stockholm within a matter of weeks.
What is Sweden’s COVID-19 strategy?
Tegnell: We are trying to keep transmission rates at a level that the Stockholm health system can sustain. So far that has worked out. The health system is stressed. They are working very hard. But they have delivered health care to everybody, including those without COVID-19. That is our goal. We are not calculating herd immunity in this. With various measures, we are just trying to keep the transmission rate as low as possible. The amount of cases has been stable for the last two-to-three weeks. We believe herd immunity will of course help us in the long run, and we are discussing that, but it’s not like we are actively trying to achieve it as has been made out (by the press and some scientists). If we wanted to achieve herd immunity we would have done nothing and let coronavirus run rampant through society. We are trying to keep the transmission rate as low as we can. We have taken reasonable measures without really hurting health care or schools. We are going for a sustainable strategy; something we can keep on doing for months. Coronavirus is not something that is just going to go away. Any country that believes it can keep it out (by closing borders, shuttering businesses, etc.) will most likely be proven wrong at some stage. We need to learn to live with this disease.