End of Sweden’s herd immunity experiment marks ‘hero’ scientist’s fall from grace

Government loses faith in Anders Tegnell and takes control of Covid-19 strategy

State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency of Sweden speaks during a news conference updating on the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) situation, in Stockholm, Sweden, on September 1, 2020. (Photo by Pontus LUNDAHL / TT NEWS AGENCY / AFP) / Sweden OUT
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Swedish doctors say the country has “suffered a lot” because of its herd immunity experiment as the man behind the strategy fades from view.

Sweden, which opted for a “soft” approach to the pandemic and never ordered a lockdown, is now tightening restrictions as it races to suppress spiralling infections.

Infections are rising quickly and exceeding the forecasts of the Public Health Agency, which predicts a peak will be reached in mid-December.

Faring far worse than its Nordic neighbours, the death toll in the country exceeded 7,000 last week.

Ending the hands-off approach, the government has now imposed a raft of new measures to stop the health system from becoming overwhelmed.

Schools and day care centres have closed, while Swedes are banned from gathering in large groups and cannot buy alcohol after 10pm.

Piotr Nowak, an infectious diseases consultant at Stockholm’s Karolinska University Hospital, said it was clear Sweden’s voluntary measures had failed, adding that the medical community had never agreed with the Public Health Agency strategy.

STOCKHOLM- SWEDEN - DECEMBER 4: Passengers are waiting on the platform at the T-centralen station to board the metro on December 4, 2020 in Stockholm, Sweden. Despite government guidelines regarding social distancing and avoiding large crowds, the metro stations are full of passengers crowded on the platforms. Over 7,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Sweden, giving the country of 10.2 million one of Europe's highest death rates per capita. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images)
Passengers who are not wearing masks board a train in Stockholm on December 4 amid a surge in coronavirus cases. Getty Images

"Authorities chose a strategy totally different to the rest of Europe, and because of it the country has suffered a lot," Dr Nowak told the Wall Street Journal.

Suspicions arose recently that Anders Tegnell, the country’s high-profile epidemiologist, was being pushed aside by government officials. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven last week held a press conference at the same time as Dr Tegnell, fuelling speculation of a split between the government and its scientific advisers.

STOCKHOLM- SWEDEN - DECEMBER 4: Inside Stockholm Central Station, a Christmas market has been organized despite the government's guidelines regarding the avoidance of large crowds and social distancing, on December 4, 2020 in Stockholm, Sweden. Over 7,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Sweden, giving the country of 10.2 million one of Europe's highest death rates per capita. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images)
A Christmas market goes ahead despite government guidelines on large crowds. Getty Images

The shift marks a vastly different mood from when Dr Tegnell captured the attention of Swedes, when some compared him to "the hero in an adventure film”.

Dr Tegnell has always denied that he was pursuing a herd immunity strategy but did argue that Swedes had built up greater levels of immunity to coronavirus than other European nations.

He appeared to backtrack on that belief last week when he admitted herd immunity was “very hard” to understand.

“It’s obvious that it does slow down transmission, but it’s been difficult to understand how large that effect is and how it should be weighed against other factors that speed up transmission,” Dr Tegnell said.

“[The] balance may have been different than I and many others believed.”