Sweden epidemiologist says herd immunity only ‘weeks’ away despite resisting national lockdown

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Life is at a standstill in most EU countries, but in Sweden the daily routine continues as normal. But with the number of infections on the rise, how long will the country stick to its relaxed approach? PHOTO/ COURTESY

By Washington Examiner for Lolwe digital

Sweden, which was criticized for its decision not to enforce a nationwide stay-at-home order, is expected to reach “herd immunity” in its capital within weeks.

The country’s plan to allow some exposure to the virus, while protecting groups at high risk, in hopes of building immunity in the general population is expected to soon reach a successful benchmark in the capital of Stockholm, Anders Tegnell, an epidemiologist at Sweden’s Public Health Agency, told CNBC on Tuesday.

“In major parts of Sweden, around Stockholm, we have reached a plateau (in new cases), and we’re already seeing the effect of herd immunity, and in a few weeks’ time, we’ll see even more of the effects of that,” Tegnell said. “And in the rest of the country, the situation is stable.”

Tegnell pointed out that modeling data suggests 20% of Stockholm’s population is already immune to the virus, and that the slow decline in cases is evidence that number will continue to get higher over the next few weeks.

Professor Johan Giesecke, an adviser to the Swedish government who once hired Tegnell, defended Sweden’s decision not to impose strict lockdown orders like its neighbors in a recent interview, arguing that lockdown measures in other European countries were not evidence-based.

Geisecke said the Imperial College study used to justify lockdown measures was “not very good” and that the disease will be shown to have a fatality rate of or near 0.1%.

“How long in a democracy do you think it would keep a lockdown?” Giesecke asked at one point in the interview. “How long will it take before people say no … In China, you can do it, you can tell people to stay at home, and you can weld back that door so they can’t get out, but in a democracy, you can’t.”

Giesecke argued that most people who get the virus will never even realize they had it, which is supported by random testing done in California and Massachusetts that showed many more people are infected than previously thought, resulting in a lower mortality rate.

More than 16,000 cases have been confirmed in Sweden, mostly in Stockholm, which is almost double the numbers found in neighboring Denmark and Finland, both of which have enforced strict lockdown measures.

The rates, however, are about the same due to both countries having populations roughly half the number of Sweden’s. CNBC noted the differences in testing in each country make those numbers somewhat murky. Sweden’s 1,937 deaths outpace Denmark’s 384 and Finland’s 149, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker.

“Unfortunately, the mortality rate is high due to the introduction in elderly care homes, and we are investigating the cause of that,” Tegnell said.

Almost 75,000 people have been tested out of the 10 million total, the country’s public health agency said. Minority groups, especially people born in Somalia, Iran, Iraq, and the former Yugoslavia, are over represented in hospitals. Giesecke speculated that immigrant groups were insulated from public warnings due to a language barrier.

Tegnell is not sure why that is the case.

“For us, the main signal is really that we need to reach those groups better with different kinds of messages to help protect them,” he said.

Sweden has been widely criticized for refraining from shutting down its economy, and one academic referred to the plan as a “mad experiment with 10 million people” that equates to “Russian roulette” with the Swedish people.

“Closing borders, in my opinion, is ridiculous,” Tegnell said in response to critics. “Because COVID-19 is in every European country now. We have more concerns about movements inside Sweden. As a society, we are more into nudging: continuously reminding people to use measures, improving measures where we see day by day that they need to be adjusted. We do not need to close down everything completely because it would be counterproductive.”