NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W hen Sweden’s government took a more lax approach than other western countries to fighting the coronavirus — it banned events with more than 50 people and shuttered secondary schools and universities but imposed few other restrictions — it was operating on the theory that stricter lockdowns couldn’t do much to save any lives in the long run. The Swedish society and economy would ultimately benefit, the thinking went, by reaching herd immunity more quickly than other countries that locked down.
“About 30 percent of people in Stockholm have reached a level of immunity,” Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter, the Swedish ambassador to the United States, told NPR on April 26. “We could reach herd immunity in the capital as early as next month.”
The extent and duration of immunity that antibodies provide remains unknown, but even if herd immunity is possible, a new study testing for coronavirus antibodies shows Sweden may still be “a long way off” from reaching it, according to one Swedish epidemiologist.
Reuters reported on May 20 that 7.3 percent of Stockholm residents tested positive for coronavirus antibodies in late April — far below the 30 percent cited by the Swedish ambassador on April 26. (To put these numbers in perspective, studies in the United States found that about 6 percent of Miami-Dade County residents and about 21 percent of New York City residents tested positive in late April for coronavirus antibody, and the United States itself remains a long way off from herd immunity.)
The Swedish government’s chief epidemiologist now estimates that closer to 20 percent of Stockholm residents have antibodies, but given how Swedish officials wildly overstated the numbers a month ago, that estimate should be taken with a grain of salt. Some experts in Sweden think the country is far from achieving herd immunity.
“I think herd immunity is a long way off, if we ever reach it,” Bjorn Olsen, professor of infectious medicine at Uppsala University, told Reuters.
At present, Sweden’s coronavirus death toll, adjusted for national population, is much higher than that of its Scandinavian neighbors. According to the Worldometers website, Sweden’s death rate per capita is four times that of Denmark, seven times that of Finland, and nine times that of Norway. Sweden’s per capita death toll is 33 percent higher than the United States’.
As for Sweden’s economy? “Economists at Swedish bank SEB estimate Sweden’s GDP will drop 6.5 per cent this year, about the same as the US and Germany, but a little better than Norway and ahead of 9–10 per cent falls in Finland and Denmark, all of which have had lockdowns,” the Financial Times reported May 10. A Reuters poll from April found economists predicting the Scandinavian economies would all fare about the same in 2020.
Was the Swedish approach a mistake? It’s still too early to make a final judgment. These are just economic forecasts and predictions, and there remain many unknowns. Could Sweden’s economy bounce back sooner than those of its neighbors? Will the death tolls in Scandinavian countries ultimately look the same? Perhaps, if there isn’t an effective vaccine or treatment developed in the next year.
But there was good news on the vaccine front this week, as Moderna announced promising results in a preliminary round of testing.
Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb cautioned during an appearance Sunday on Face the Nation that “when you try to scale up and get volume, a lot of things can go wrong, a lot of things can be delayed. It’s very hard to get to the point where you’re manufacturing at high, high quantities.”
“I would say that’s probably more likely a 2021 event that we’re going to have a vaccine available in sufficient quantities to mass inoculate the population,” Gottlieb added. At the same time, he thinks the prospects are good that we could have a vaccine to “ring fence an outbreak” in a city if there is a second wave this fall. The number of lives ultimately saved by a vaccine or treatment would depend on what percentage of the population has already been infected by the time a vaccine or an effective antiviral drug hits the market.
So there remain many unknowns about treatments, vaccines, and the economy. It will take some time to have a full understanding of how the Swedish model fares compared to other western countries. But at the moment, with so little apparent economic benefit and a much higher death toll per capita than its Scandinavian neighbors, it isn’t looking so hot.