Sweden’s chief epidemiologist has denied that herd immunity was the government’s aim when tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an interview with French broadcaster France24, Dr. Anders Tegnell said herd immunity was “definitely not” a goal.
Tegnell made the comments after emails emerged last month showing him discussing the concept of herd immunity, a status traditionally achieved with vaccines where enough members of a population become immune to an infection that it stops spreading. Last month, a World Health Organization (WHO) official described the approach of pushing for herd immunity without a vaccine as “very dangerous.”
On Friday, Tegnell told France 24: “people getting infected on purpose is of course not [in] accordance with any public health policy. We tried to slow down the spread of the virus as much as anybody else in any other country. And we managed to slow it down just as much as most other countries. It took slightly longer than other countries.”
“On the other hand, we don’t have the resurgence of the disease that those countries have.”
Tegnell said: “In the end, we will see how much difference it will make to have a […] strategy that’s more sustainable that you can keep in place for a long time instead of the strategy that means that you lockdown, open and lockdown over and over again.”
Over the course of the pandemic, Sweden has been singled out for not legally imposing lockdowns as many other countries, including its European neighbors, did.
Harnessing the concept known as folkvett, or the common sense of the people as a collective, Sweden instead gave citizens guidance on how to act during the pandemic. Shops, restaurants, and gyms remained open, but schools and universities were closed to over-16s. Public gatherings of more than 50 people were banned, and over-70s and those with COVID-19 symptoms were told to self-isolate. It has also not mandated face mask use.
More half a year into the pandemic, 86,505 of the over 29 million global COVID-19 cases have been reported in Sweden, and 5,846 of the more than 924,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. Sweden has recorded the fifth highest mortality rate per capita in Europe, five times higher than Denmark, and 10 times than Norway and Finland.
Asked whether nothing had gone wrong in Sweden’s response to result in its death toll, Tegnell said: “Of course something went wrong when 5,800 people died. That’s definitely not something we expected. Nothing we planned for, nothing we hoped for. So that’s definitely gone wrong. But that does not mean that the strategy itself has gone wrong.”
Earlier in the interview, Tegnell said the mortality rate ten times higher than other countries was not connected to the country’s strategy and Sweden was not comparable to Norway or Finland. He said the mortality rate was due to deaths in elderly and long-term care facilities that had weaknesses making it possible for the disease to spread. The populist Sweden Democrats have called for Tegnell to resign over deaths among the elderly, describing the situation as a “massacre.”
Tegnell also hit back at the idea that residents of Sweden were not affected by the pandemic because there wasn’t an enforced lockdown. Asked whether the strategy was much the same as other nations, apart from mandating face mask use, he said “to a great extent yes.”
Society slowed down in Sweden “much more than people in other countries understand,” he said.
Concluding, Tegnell said coronavirus is not over in Sweden: “It’s not over for anybody. This is a disease that’s going to be with us for a long time. And we’re going to have to adapt to it in different ways.”