Sweden's King Says Herd Immunity Approach to Covid-19 Has Failed

Stockholm, Sweden on June 28 2020: While much of the world was in heavy lockdown, people in Stockholm gather on the beach. Emelie Lundman/Shutterstock.com

Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf has given his verdict on the country’s approach to the Covid-19 pandemic: “We have failed.”

“I think we have failed. We have a large number who have died and that is terrible. It is something we all suffer with,” Carl XVI Gustaf said in an interview with Swedish national broadcaster SVT

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven made similar remarks this week, telling the newspaper Aftonbladet that their health authorities had misjudged the outbreak.

Sweden has taken a controversial approach to control the pandemic. Instead of opting for strict lockdowns and tough social distancing measures, authorities attempted to curtail the virus by allowing the controlled spread of Covid-19 viral infection among the population. The theory goes that if a significant portion of the population catches the virus and develops antibodies, then community transmission of the infection will be halted, protecting those who are most at risk. Sweden’s government has persistently denied that “herd immunity” was the official approach to control Covid-19. However, leaked emails from the country’s public health agency suggest they were interested in allowing the disease to slowly seep through the population in a controlled manner. 

In an attempt to allow the slow but steady spread of the virus, the Swedish government only introduced lax lockdown measures and focused on “trust-based” voluntary measures. While the extent of this "anti-lockdown" approach has arguably been overstated by some media reports, Sweden did not impose an official lockdown and kept large parts of its society open.

“Closedown, lockdown, closing borders — nothing has a historical scientific basis, in my view," Anders Tegnell, state epidemiologist of Sweden and architect of the country’s Covid-19 response, told Nature in April 2020.

Unfortunately, this response has evidently been a total failure. Typically, herd immunity is achieved through a vaccine, ensuring a large enough share of the population has antibodies that a virus can't get a hold. However, without a vaccine, the approach involves letting the virus spread through the population, often at a huge human costSweden has seen notably more deaths than its neighboring countries. According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the case fatality rate in Sweden is 2.2 percent, compared to 0.8 percent in Denmark, 1 percent in Norway, and 1.5 percent in Finland. It’s also higher than the US case facility rate of 1.8 percent. 

In the wake of these failures, Sweden has set up a special commission to investigate its handling of the pandemic. In its first report released this week, it concluded that relaxed restrictions and shortcomings in residential care contributed to the highest number of deaths seen in elderly people and care home residents.

Even beyond the cost to human life, Sweden’s approach has not been highly effective at achieving herd immunity. A study from June showed that just 6.1 percent of Sweden's population had developed antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, significantly lower than the levels predicted by its health authorities. 

Sweden is now looking to change its approach. The country started to alter its response to Covid-19 in June following widespread criticism and has recently announced further lockdown measures.

This article has been amended to include a video by Yale University about herd immunity and vaccines. 

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