Sweden’s coronavirus herd immunity timeline fails, country’s public health chief says

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Sweden’s approach to combating coronavirus has been different compared to most, but where the country’s public health chief once defended the strategy, now he says it has not been as effective as expected.

In mid-April, Anders Tegnell, the state epidemiologist who has been the figurehead of Sweden's strategy, publicly stated that Stockholm, the center of Sweden’s coronavirus outbreak, could achieve herd immunity in May.

However, on Monday, Tegnell said that this timeline for herd immunity “will not happen” in an email exchange with US media company NPR.

“Current investigations show different numbers, but [Stockholm's immunity rate] is likely lower [than 30 percent]. As you might be aware, there is a problem with measuring immunity for this virus,” Tegnell said, NPR reported.

Sweden has taken a dramatically different approach to combating the coronavirus pandemic, adopting a business-as-usual strategy without imposing any social distancing measures or curfews. Unlike most other countries, schools and borders remain open as well as “non-essential” businesses including restaurants and entertainment hot spots.

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The country has been criticized for this approach, but authorities have stood fast, saying that it is beginning to work by achieving “herd immunity” – when a majority of the population is immune to a disease, limiting its spread.

As no vaccine yet exists for coronavirus, countries can only achieve herd immunity to COVID-19 by a majority of their citizens contracting and surviving the virus, therefore becoming immune to contracting and spreading it a second time, although this has not been definitively proven as of yet. Unanswered questions about the strength of immunity developed and some evidence of people becoming re-infected with the virus further fuels questions as to the strategy’s validity.

As late as last month though, Tegnell had defended the country’s strategy.

“According to our modelers, we are starting to see so many immune people in the population in Stockholm that it is starting to have an effect on the spread of the infection,” said Tegnell on Norwegian TV as reported by The Telegraph in mid-April.

The “herd immunity” strategy has been widely criticized in Sweden and elsewhere as putting people’s lives at risks by allowing them to catch the virus.

“We have a very vivid political debate," Sweden’s ambassador to the US, Karin Olofsdotter, said, NPR reported on Monday.

“I don't think people are protesting on the streets but ... there's a very big debate, if this [strategy] is the right thing to do or not, on Facebook and everywhere,” she added.

Globally, governments are grappling with how best to cope with the pandemic, but proponents of the herd immunity strategy have argued that lockdowns are damaging economies and causing a potentially devastating recession, which could kill more people in the long-term.

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