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Coronavirus: Has Sweden’s herd immunity strategy failed?

Sweden’s unorthodox and controversial method of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic has been criticised with the country’s death toll now at 4,220.

Coronavirus: Has Sweden’s herd immunity strategy failed?

Sweden was the only country in the world which decided against enforcing a lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic, instead believing that the population could build up herd immunity to the virus. The United Kingdom also considered battling Covid-19 with a herd immunity approach but soon changed tack and went into nationwide lockdown on 23 March. While the rest of Europe closed down, Sweden carried on as normal – schools, restaurants, shops, cinemas and bars all remained open however it did end up banning gatherings of over 50 people at the end of March. Now we are seeing the results of that decision, taken by the country’s Chief Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell.

Herd immunity still far off in Sweden 

Sweden, which has a population of 10.3 million, has one of the highest death rates per capita due to Covid-19. The country recorded 6.08 deaths per million residents during a seven-day period – higher than the United Kingdom (5.57), Belgium (4.28) and the United States (4.11). Compared to neighbouring Norway, who went into lockdown on 12 March, Sweden’s fatality rate per million of their population according to Our World in Data’s website, stands at 408.44, while Norway’s is almost a tenth of that, 43.35. By late April, just 7.3% of Stockholm residents were found to have developed Covid-19 antibodies, according to a national study. Recent figures claim the percentage who have gained immunity now stands at around 20% but – far from the 60% required for herd immunity to be declared.

Former Swedish state epidemiologist Annika Linde, who was in office during two recent epidemics – the Swine Flu epidemic in 2009 and the Sars epidemic, three years later, says the government got it wrong not to lock the country down like the rest of the continent. Lockdown, she told The Guardian this week, would have bought valuable time to set up a contingency strategy. “I think that we needed more time for preparedness. If we had shut down very early ... we would have been able, during that time, to make sure that we had what was necessary to protect the vulnerable,” she explained.

Death toll per country in Scandinavia

  • Sweden: 4,220
  • Denmark: 565
  • Finland: 313
  • Norway: 235

Source: John Hopkins University. 27 May 2020

Today, Sweden’s death toll from Covid-19-related illnesses stands at 4,220 – almost half of the victims were elderly patients in nursing homes. So has Tegnell’s herd immunity plan fallen flat? Or would lockdown have made no difference anyway?

“I think that’s very difficult to know,” Tegnall told HardTalk last week. “The death toll in Sweden is mainly in facilities for long-term, ill, elderly people. We had an unfortunate spread in those facilities in the same way that some other countries had, but not our Nordic neighbours. That’s something which we are trying to investigate. These people meet a lot of other people, even in a lockdown. You can’t isolate them. A lockdown would not have stopped the spread into care homes. When it comes to the death toll, this didn’t work out the way we hoped. On the other hand, the connection between our basic strategy in slowing down the spread – if that really, in the long run would affect the total death toll in a society or not is not clear yet. We have at least 10, maybe 10 times higher level of immunity in the population which means we are much further into the spread than other countries. If that means those other countries would reach a similar death tolls to us or not, I think that’s very difficult to judge”.


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