Sweden is debating enforcing new coronavirus restrictions on Stockholm amid a small spike in infections.
The country’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell — who advised Sweden to avoid full lockdown in favour of a ‘herd immunity’ strategy — said new measures for the capital could not be ruled out.
It came just hours after the city’s top health official warned the region, home to more than 2million people, had seen its downward trend ‘broken’.
The news will prompt questions over whether Sweden has achieved ‘herd immunity’ or not — even though different regions can have differing levels of protection. One coronavirus expert from Denmark yesterday suggested Sweden’s crisis could be ‘over’.
The country is currently recording around 28 infections per 100,000 people. This figure is less than half of the UK’s own infection rate of 69, which has risen drastically over the past three weeks.
Meanwhile, Professor Tegnell claimed the country’s success in battling last year’s winter flu has been the cause for its high coronavirus death toll. The elderly are the most vulnerable to both diseases.
Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell (pictured) said new measures for the capital could not be ruled out
At the peak of the crisis, Stockholm county was recording around 240 cases a day. This has dropped to below 100 by the start of July but has now started to risen to an average of around 44 — up from 30 a fortnight ago
What is ‘herd immunity’?
Herd immunity is a situation in which a population of people is protected from a disease because so many of them are unaffected by it – because they’ve already had it or have been vaccinated – that it cannot spread. To cause an outbreak a disease-causing bacteria or virus must have a continuous supply of potential victims who are not immune to it.
Immunity is when your body knows exactly how to fight off a certain type of infection because it has encountered it before, either by having the illness in the past or through a vaccine. When a virus or bacteria enters the body the immune system creates substances called antibodies, which are designed to destroy one specific type of bug.
When these have been created once, some of them remain in the body and the body also remembers how to make them again. Antibodies – alongside T cells – provide long-term protection, or immunity, against an illness. If nobody is immune to an illness – as was the case at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak – it can spread like wildfire.
But if, for example, half of people have immunity – from a past infection or a vaccine – there are only half as many people the illness can spread to. As more people become immune the bug finds it harder and harder to spread until its pool of victims becomes so small it can no longer spread at all.
The threshold for herd immunity is different for various illnesses, depending on contagion.
Sweden’s strategy emphasising personal responsibility rather than major lockdowns to slow the virus drew fierce criticism as deaths shot up in spring. Critics warned how thousands of patients could die.
Infections dropped significantly in the summer and they had been spared the type of sharp increases in new cases seen in Spain, France and Britain this month.
And the country is currently recording fewer than 200 new cases a day, on average — a figure which has dropped from around 250 last week.
For comparison, the country was recording around 1,000 infections daily during the peak of its crisis in June.
It was also announcing more than 100 deaths a day, during the darkest weeks of the crisis — suggesting tests were only picking up a fraction of the disease, given the virus is estimated to kill around 0.6 per cent of infected patients, many of whom are unaware they have the disease.
Sweden has only recorded 31 deaths throughout the entire month of September, and the daily totals have stayed in single figures since July. Patients can take around 21 days to die of the disease, meaning any true spike in cases is seen in deaths several weeks later.
These figures have bolstered claims that Sweden may have achieved some form of herd immunity through its controversial policy.
But Stockholm appears to have suffered a slight spike in cases. The Local reports that the city’s test positivity rate — the amount of swabs that come back positive — has jumped from 1.3 per cent to 2.2 per cent. The national average is around 1.5 per cent.
Test positivity rate is a sign that an outbreak is growing, as long as the amount of tests being carried out stays the same.
The increase in new cases cannot solely be explained by increased testing, the Public Health Agency said yesterday.
At the peak of the crisis, Stockholm county was recording around 240 cases a day. This has dropped to below 100 by the start of July but has now started to risen to an average of around 44 — up from 30 a fortnight ago.
The Scandinavian nation was the only country in Europe not to introduce strict lockdown measures at the start of the pandemic. Pictured: Crowds walking in Stockholm this week
Data from Swedish health chiefs show Skåne County — on the border of Denmark and a region that has half the population of Stockholm — is recording the most cases each day.
Professor Tegnell, who devised Sweden’s pandemic strategy, said: ‘The rolling average has increased somewhat.
‘It hasn’t affected the healthcare – yet. The number of new cases at ICU is very low and the number of deaths are very low.’
However, he said that new measures for the capital could not be ruled out due to the spike.
He said: ‘We have a discussion with Stockholm about whether we need to introduce measures to reduce the spread of infection. Exactly what that will be, we will come back to in the next few days.’
And he said ministers were keeping a close eye on cases in the Dalarna region, to the north west of Stockholm, because infection rates were rising slowly.
Earlier on Tuesday Stockholm’s top health official warned that the region had seen an increase in cases.
Stockholm Director of Health and Medical Services Bjorn Eriksson said: ‘The downwards trend is broken.
‘We can only hope that this is a blip, that the spread start decreasing again. That depends on how well we follow the guidelines.’
Sweden has 5,870 deaths, many more per capita than its Nordic neighbours but lower than countries such as Spain and Italy that opted for hard lockdowns.
The country kept open schools for children under 16, banned gatherings of more than 50 people and told over-70s and vulnerable groups to self-isolate.
Shops, bars and restaurants have stayed open throughout the pandemic and the wearing of masks has not been advised by the government.
Professor Tegnell now claims the country’s success against the seasonal flu last winter has been the cause for its high Covid death toll.
He told Dagens Nyheter: ‘When many people die of the flu in the winter, fewer die in heatwaves the following summer. In this case, it was Covid-19 that caused many to die.
‘What has been seen is that the countries that have had a fairly low mortality for influenza in the past two, three years, such as Sweden, have a very high excess mortality in Covid-19.
‘Those which had a high flu mortality rate, such as Norway, have fairly low Covid mortality. The trend has been seen in several countries.
‘This may not be the whole explanation but part of it. That also explained the high death rates recorded in the UK and Belgium.’
The virus has ripped through care homes in Sweden, with nearly half of all deaths occurring in them.
Prime Minister Stefan Lofven even confessed in May the country had not done enough to protect vulnerable people.
Professor Tegnell admits there were severe errors made over care homes but does not believe a lockdown would have helped.
He claims residents who escaped the winter flu are the ones to have died due to coronavirus.
It comes after Professor Kim Sneppen, an expert in the spread of coronavirus at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, yesterday said that Sweden might have beaten the pandemic.
He told Denmark’s Politiken newspaper : ‘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.
‘Perhaps, the epidemic is over there.’
He said that the virus may now have run out of steam. He added : ‘That is what they have said. On the positive side, they may now be finished with the epidemic.’