Coronavirus: was Sweden’s controversial ‘herd immunity’ strategy right all along?

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Sweden’s controversial ‘herd immunity’ approach to tackling coronavirus appears to be finally paying off, despite doom-mongers predicting catastrophe for the country.

The Scandinavian country has averaged only one death a day for the last 10, despite not going into lockdown.

Sweden has so far has recorded 5,843 coronavirus deaths, making it the fifth-highest per capita death rate in Europe, but the number of new infections has been declining steadily since the peak in late June.

Overall, it has recorded more than 86,000 infections in its population of around 10 million, but it had just 13 patients in intensive care on Wednesday.

That same day, it recorded 204 new infections and no additional deaths.

This is a stark contrast to other countries in Europe that went into lockdowns, such as Britain, France and Spain, where new cases are soaring and their workers and economies in hibernation.

The UK recorded 2,659 new infections and registered another eight deaths on Wednesday. France meanwhile recorded 8,577 cases and 30 more deaths. The last available figures for Spain from Friday last week, saw it record 10,476 more infections and 184 more deaths.

Sweden has seen a marked drop in cases compared to some of its European neighbours. Our World In Data
Sweden has seen a marked drop in cases compared to some of its European neighbours. Our World In Data

At the end of May, Sweden's state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, received death threats over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But less than four months later, there is now a sense of vindication.

Unlike any other country in the world, Sweden shunned a strict lockdown.

During its first wave of the virus, the Scandinavian state kept restaurants, cafes and bars open. Instead of confining people to their homes, the government issued several guidelines to help people through the pandemic such as staying home if they were ill, washing hands and social distancing. The state did, however, ban gatherings of more than 50 people.

The herd immunity theory says that if at least 60 per cent of a population get the virus, the whole population develops immunity to it, slowing down its transmission. Although other countries including Britain and the Netherlands had considered the same strategy, both ended up abandoning it, due to pressure from health officials and the public.

By the end of May, Sweden had become the country with the highest number of coronavirus deaths per capita, but it stubbornly kept bars, restaurants and businesses open.

The picture looked more upbeat on Wednesday, when Johan Carlson, an epidemiologist and the director of the Swedish public health agency, said that Swedes were now benefitting from the herd immunity strategy.

“Our strategy was consistent and sustainable,” Prof Carlson, a leading figure behind the herd immunity policy, said. “We probably have a lower risk of [the virus] spreading than other countries.”

tate epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency of Sweden smiles as he arrives for a news conference updating on the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) situation, in Stockholm, Sweden, August 27 2020. EPA
tate epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency of Sweden smiles as he arrives for a news conference updating on the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) situation, in Stockholm, Sweden, August 27 2020. EPA

"The purpose of our approach is for people themselves to understand the need to follow the recommendations and guidelines that exist,” he added.

"There are no other tricks before there are available medical measures, primarily vaccines.

“The Swedish population has taken this to heart.”

The rates of infection are also increasing in Sweden’s neighbouring countries Norway and Denmark, which both enforced lockdowns.

On Wednesday, for the first time since the spring, higher rates of infection were registered in Norway than in Sweden. Denmark has 2.1 new cases per 100,000 people, Norway has 1.5 and Sweden 1.1, according to the TT news agency.

In response, Norway will stop easing coronavirus lockdown and could end up bringing back tougher measures, Prime Minister Erna Solberg said on Thursday.

Norway originally went into lockdown in March but eased measures in May after seeing a dramatic drop in new cases.

A health worker tests a nasal swab sample for COVID-19 in Gauhati, India, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. India's coronavirus cases are now the second-highest in the world and only behind the United States. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

epa08658214 Pedestrians walk past art sculpture at a shopping street in Bangkok, Thailand, 10 September 2020. Thailand's economy is reported to be suffering through a 12.2 per cent shrink in the second quarter of 2020, the biggest contraction since the Asian economic crisis in 1998 and the worst economic outlook in Southeast Asia caused by the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. EPA/RUNGROJ YONGRIT

TOPSHOT - Children play on the playground of the "Colegio Aljarafe S.C.A." school in Mairena del Aljarafe, near Seville, on September 10, 2020. Spain, that passed the landmark figure of 500,000 coronavirus infections, had largely gained control over its outbreak by imposing one of the world's toughest lockdowns, but infections have surged since the restrictions were fully removed at the end of June. / AFP / CRISTINA QUICLER

An employee wears a Continental branded protective face mask at the Continental AG factory in Hanover, Germany, on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. Continental plans to cut or transfer as much as 13% of its workforce to reduce costs by at least 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) a year, deepening restructuring as the coronavirus adds to pressure on the auto industry. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Disposable protective face masks move along production line conveyors at the Continental AG factory in Hanover, Germany, on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. Continental plans to cut or transfer as much as 13% of its workforce to reduce costs by at least 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) a year, deepening restructuring as the coronavirus adds to pressure on the auto industry. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

epa08659042 A child wearing a protective face mask sits down during his first on-site day at Albino Nunez school after months of lockdown in Ourense, Spain, 10 September 2020. Protection against Covid-19 at the new normality is the most important fact in the school this year. EPA/Brais Lorenzo

A model wears a protective face mask in the backstage before the show of designer Andres Sarda during the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Madrid, Spain, September 10, 2020. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

Netherland's King Willem-Alexander (C) looks on as he visits a coronavirus (Covid-19) test site in Leiderdorp, The Netherlands on September 10, 2020. In the parking lot of the Alrijne Hospital, people with complaints can have themselves tested for corona virus (Covid-19). - Netherlands OUT / AFP / ANP / Remko de Waal

A health worker takes a nasal swab sample to test for COVID-19 at an urban health centre in Ahmedabad, India, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. India's coronavirus cases are now the second-highest in the world and only behind the United States. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

epa08658628 A medical staff member takes a woman's temperature as people are tested for coronavirus, at a hospital in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 10 September 2020. Countries around the world are taking increased measures to stem the widespread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus which causes the Covid-19 disease. EPA/FEHIM DEMIR

Workers check disinfection tunnels at the Capital University of Science and Technology in Islamabad on September 10, 2020, following the government's annoucement about reopening educational institutes starting from September 15, nearly six months after the spread of Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.  Cases are falling, intensive care units are seeing few virus patients and Pakistan has lifted most remaining restrictions, with schools and universities due to re-open next week. To date Pakistan has confirmed about 300,000 infections and is recording a few hundred new cases per day, while the daily death toll continues to hover in the single digits. / AFP / Aamir QURESHI

epa08658700 A trishaw driver wearing protective face mask and shield decorated with an image of Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, and the logo of National League for Democracy (NLD) party during an election campaign rally in Yangon, Myanmar, 10 September 2020. Political parties in the country have begun campaigning for the general elections amid a surge of the COVID-19 virus. The Ministry of Health issued a warning to prepare for a second wave of of the COVID-19 disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. EPA/LYNN BO BO

A nurse prepares to inoculate volunteer Ilya Dubrovin, 36, with Russia's new coronavirus vaccine in a post-registration trials at a clinic in Moscow on September 10, 2020. Russia announced last month that its vaccine, named "Sputnik V" after the Soviet-era satellite that was the first launched into space in 1957, had already received approval. The vaccine was developed by the Gamaleya research institute in Moscow in coordination with the Russian defence ministry. / AFP / Natalia KOLESNIKOVA

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“We can’t open up any more at this time…In case of a rise in the number of infections without a known source, or local outbreaks that are not contained, we will consider righter restrictions, locally, regionally or nationally,” she said.

Following Sweden’s perceived success with herd immunity, reports have suggested that the United States, the world’s hardest-hit country by the virus, was considering implementing it.

But on Wednesday White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Dr Deborah Birx rejected the reports, saying she didn't want to endanger American lives.

Dr Birx told reporters at St. Mary Mercy Hospital in Livonia, Michigan that American lives were non-negotiable for the sake of herd immunity.

"Neither I, nor anybody in the administration, is willing to sacrifice American lives for herd immunity. We'll get to herd immunity through a vaccine and that's the right way to do it."

Updated: September 10, 2020 07:28 PM

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