Swedish government splits from doctors and scientists over herd immunity

Government figures based on a ‘completely unproven assumption’, experts claim

Anders Tegnell
Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell
(Image credit: Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

Officials in Sweden have claimed the rate of coronavirus immunity in the capital city Stockholm could be as high as 40%, raising scepticism from experts in the country.

The Swedish Public Health Agency, which devised the country’s “maverick” no-lockdown strategy, said that high immunity rates are “already playing a big role in pushing back the disease”, Politico reports.

Lead epidemiologist Anders Tegnell told reporters that Sweden is “clearly at levels which are very significant”, adding that “the reduction we are now seeing speaks strongly in favour of a very large immunity in the population”.

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However, experts have said that herd immunity rates, which has been suggested to be achieved when around 45-50% of the population is immune, “were well below those mentioned by the agency”, the news site says.

Twenty-five Swedish doctors and scientists have published an open letter on USA Today, lambasting the government’s approach to tackling the virus and suggesting that immunity rates may in fact be as low as 10%.

One of the authors of the letter, virologist Lena Einhorn, told Politico that “better hygiene routines within elderly care homes and the fact that many Swedes are social distancing at summer homes” are among the reasons for falling infection rates.

“The reasons are manifold, but it is unlikely that herd immunity is playing any major role,” she said, describing the Public Health Agency’s assertion as a “completely unproven assumption”.

More than 5,500 people have died with Covid-19, according to latest figures, meaning Sweden has “one of the highest death rates relative to population size in Europe, and by far the worst among the Nordic nations”, the BBC reports.

Tegnell has previously admitted that too many Swedes have died, especially in Swedish care homes. But said that he believes there is still “no strong evidence that a lockdown would have made that much of a difference”.

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Joe Evans is the world news editor at TheWeek.co.uk. He joined the team in 2019 and held roles including deputy news editor and acting news editor before moving into his current position in early 2021. He is a regular panellist on The Week Unwrapped podcast, discussing politics and foreign affairs. 

Before joining The Week, he worked as a freelance journalist covering the UK and Ireland for German newspapers and magazines. A series of features on Brexit and the Irish border got him nominated for the Hostwriter Prize in 2019. Prior to settling down in London, he lived and worked in Cambodia, where he ran communications for a non-governmental organisation and worked as a journalist covering Southeast Asia. He has a master’s degree in journalism from City, University of London, and before that studied English Literature at the University of Manchester.