In Brief

Will vaccines sound the death knell for Sweden’s Covid experiment?

Herd immunity will require fewer sacrifices if it can be achieved with an effective vaccination programme

Back in March, as Sweden embarked on a uniquely open approach to the coronavirus pandemic - and its death toll began to rise - state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell (pictured) urged the rest of the world to reserve judgement.

“In the autumn there will be a second wave,” he said. “Sweden will have a high level of immunity and the number of cases will probably be quite low.”

For a time, it looked as if he might be vindicated. In September, the Swedish policy of keeping the economy open while asking people to reduce social interaction was “beginning to gain traction elsewhere in Europe”, The National reported.

Sweden was recording fewer than 300 new cases of Covid-19 per day, “compared with thousands in other European countries such as Britain, France and Spain”, the paper adds. “Its average number of deaths [was] one a day.” And Swedes had benefited from the business-as-usual approach to schooling, socialising and health services.

As autumn turns to winter, however, the calculus has changed again. Cases are on the rise and more people are dying in Sweden than in its Nordic neighbours (although Sweden’s current mortality rate is below Germany’s and less than a tenth of Belgium’s).

The big shift, though, is the promise that herd immunity might soon be achieved through artificial means.

“As half a dozen vaccines draw into sight,” says The Times, “it is at last possible to set down the rudiments of a meaningful judgment on the strategy.” And Swedish critics of their country’s approach “believe it is finally clear that their country has paid far too high a price for too few tangible results”, the paper reports.

Even Tegnell himself seems to be having second thoughts. “Throughout history there has up to now been no infectious disease whose transmission was fully halted by herd immunity without a vaccine,” he recently told the German newspaper Der Spiegel.

Fortunately for Swedes - and the rest of us - we won’t have to find out if Covid-19 could have been the first.

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