Sweden 'got it wrong on herd immunity'

Sweden is now seeing new cases rise by as much as 50 per cent a week  - AFP
Sweden is now seeing new cases rise by as much as 50 per cent a week - AFP
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

The predecessor of Sweden's state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has accused him and his team of failing to adequately prepare Sweden for the second wave of coronavirus infections, because "wishful thinking" led them wrongly to believe that immunity would leave the country protected.

Annika Linde, who served as state epidemiologist from 2005 until Tegnell took over in 2013, told The Telegraph that the Public Health Agency of Sweden had throughout the pandemic shown a reluctance to plan for the worst.

Watch: Sweden admits its coronavirus immunity predictions were wrong, as cases spike

"Wishful thinking - when you don't believe in the worst scenario - has been guiding Swedish decisions too much," she said. "The Swedish authorities have been slow all the time. Instead of being proactive, they've run after the virus, and the virus has been able to spread too much before they take action."

When Tegnell returned from his summer break at the end of July, he argued that the sharp drop in cases in Sweden over the preceding three weeks could, at least in part, be explained by greater immunity within the population.

He predicted that this immunity would make controlling the infection much easier for Sweden over the winter than it would be for neighbouring Denmark, Norway and Finland, which, unlike Sweden, imposed lockdowns.

A woman passes a Christmas decorated shopping window in central Stockholm  - Shutterstock 
A woman passes a Christmas decorated shopping window in central Stockholm - Shutterstock

"There are significantly more people in Sweden who are immune than in Norway," he told his daily press conference in July. "The big reduction we are seeing now suggests strongly that the infection is being held back and that we will probably be hit less hard if we see a second wave in the autumn."

But the country is now seeing the number of new cases rise by as much as 50 per cent a week, with a record 5,990 new coronavirus cases and 42 deaths reported on Friday - dramatically higher rates than reported in Norway, Denmark and Finland.

"I hoped he was right. It would have been great. But he wasn't," Linde said of Tegnell's immunity hopes. "Now we have a high death rate, and we have not escaped a second wave: immunity makes a little difference maybe, but not much difference."

On Thursday, Tegnell argued that Sweden had not been alone in being wrong-footed by the severity of the second wave. "The development has been different from what we believed in the summer, and that’s not just the case for Sweden but for the whole world," he said. "The pandemic has taken off in a way that few countries had expected."

Annika Linde
Annika Linde

Sweden, he conceded, did not have the level of protective immunity he had predicted, with the number of undetected infections significantly lower than the agency initially believed. “The number of people we don’t find with diagnostics is with high probability smaller than we thought,” he said.

What was now "absolutely obvious", he continued, was that the brake effect from immunity was too weak to counteract the acceleration effects coming from the colder weather, people's return to work, and looser adherence to recommendations.

But Linde, who unlike Tegnell is an expert on influenza, said that, based on past epidemics, the Public Health Agency should have been prepared.

"My guess was always that we would see a second wave, and that it would be heavier than the first one," she said. "This is really typical of pandemics, seeding in spring and summer, and then explosion in the autumn."

Coronavirus Sweden Spotlight Chart - Cases default
Coronavirus Sweden Spotlight Chart - Cases default

Tegnell has always acknowledged that a winter resurgence was possible. But his agency nonetheless waited until October 20th before issuing the first set of non-coercive, locally-targeted restrictions to the region around Uppsala. It has now issued them to 18 out of 21 regions, and on Wednesday the government moved to impose a nationwide ban on alcohol sales after 10pm.

But Linde complained that the country was now fighting a rearguard battle. The Public Health Agency should have anticipated the autumn explosion and worked harder in the late summer testing, tracking and isolating cases, she said.

"You have to diminish the seeding, then you will have much fewer people who can act as spreaders when the climate becomes suitable," she said.

The agency should also have been "much more careful in not allowing people to have big parties" in the late summer, she added. It should now recommend the use of face masks in some situations - Tegnell has previously suggested face masks could reduce adherence to other rules - and should consider returning universities and upper secondary schools to distance learning.

Watch: Can you catch the coronavirus twice?