Sweden's 'herd immunity' model gains momentum in Europe

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Sweden’s controversial ‘herd immunity’ strategy to combat Covid-19 is beginning to gain traction elsewhere in Europe, as its virus case rates continue to fall.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the Swedish government has averted any lockdowns and instead used campaigns to emphasise personal responsibility to socially distance and keep good hygiene. It has also made an effort to shield the most vulnerable people from the virus.

Although Sweden’s death rate is high compared to its Scandinavian neighbours, it is still far below most other parts of Europe. Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has blamed the country’s high death toll on its success in dealing with the winter flu outbreak. Overall, it has recorded more than 89,000 infections and 5,876 deaths from coronavirus.

Both infection and death rates have dramatically fallen over recent months. For the last seven days, Sweden’s daily average of new cases is 297, compared to thousands in other European countries like Britain, France and Spain. Its average number of deaths for the last week is one a day.

The herd immunity theory says that if at least 60 per cent of a population contract the virus, the whole population develops immunity to it, slowing down its transmission.

The tactic was not a popular one, and Sweden was seen as something of an anomaly. Although other European countries, notably Britain and the Netherlands, flirted with using the herd immunity strategy, both ended up abandoning it due to pressure from health officials and the public.

Anders Tegnell, Sweden's state epidemiologist, has defended his country's unorthodox coronavirus response. Reuters

Most of Europe’s other countries chose instead to enter into lockdown and in nations such as Britain, France and Spain, new Covid-19 cases are escalating while their economies are struggling.

Despite initial scepticism, Ireland is one of the nations exploring herd immunity. On Wednesday, Ireland’s Dáil’s Covid-19 committee was advised to let coronavirus be spread among people under 60 in a controlled way.

Sweden’s former chief epidemiologist Dr Johan Giesecke suggested Irish lawmakers allow the virus to spread through the population while the “old and frail” are shielded and care home staff and residents frequently tested.

The epidemiologist said that the Irish government should not build its strategy around the assumption that a vaccine would arrive quickly, adding that Sweden’s “soft lockdown” worked because the government trusted the public to adhere to the rules.

“We might have to wait for it and it may not be very effective in those who need it most,” Dr Giesecke said of a potential vaccine.

One leading scientist at the University of Oxford has said the latest UK restrictions suggested “a move towards Sweden”, as there is more focus on personal responsibility and acceptance that cases will rise.

Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford, claimed a “shift in policy” was emerging from the government.

“If you look at some of the policies, what you’re starting to see is a move towards Sweden,” he told the BBC. “When you look at bars and restaurants, that’s the policy there — they have table service.

“So what I’m hoping we now start to see is a more coherent, consistent policy … there will be an inevitable rise in cases as we go into winter. The key is not to panic. If we panic, we’ll talk ourselves into lockdown.”

However, many ministers still are quick to distance themselves from the controversial herd immunity approach.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Wednesday denied that the UK government is shifting to an approach similar to Sweden’s.

“I don’t accept that characterisation,” Mr Raab said.

“We’ve just introduced a suite of changes. The one thing I would accept is that we as individuals have got some responsibility to comply — it’s not just what the government does that matters.”

But in neighbouring Denmark, a leading virologist said there is growing evidence to suggest Sweden’s strategy has been successful.

“There is some evidence that the Swedes have built up a degree of immunity to the virus which, along with what else they are doing to stop the spread, is enough to control the disease,” Kim Sneppen, professor of biocomplexity at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, told Denmark’s Politiken newspaper on Monday.

“That is what they have said. On the positive side, they may now be finished with the epidemic."

Updated: September 23, 2020 08:54 PM

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