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Sweden’s COVID Experiment Failed Badly

Herd immunity has been highly controversial. Some hoped that Sweden's COVID experiment might lead to this outcome. That has NOT been the case.
Sweden’s COVID Experiment Failed Badly
Beautiful smiling Swedish girl holds a flag while wearing a protective face mask outdoors.

Sweden has been held up as a model for how to deal with COVID-19 without shutting down. Cafes, restaurants, bars and businesses remained open and younger children continued to go to school. While that seemed to work last summer, the picture is much less rosy now. Some experts are suggesting that Sweden’s COVID Experiment has Failed.

Sweden made headlines all over the world last spring and summer. It seemed as if the country had figured out how to handle the coronavirus pandemic: No lockdowns, no disruptions to the economy. Unlike other European countries, Sweden allowed life to go on as usual with just a few modest restrictions.

Although deaths were higher in Sweden than in its Nordic neighbors, a lot of people suggested that Swedish health experts had a more enlightened way of dealing with COVID-19. There were subtle hints about herd immunity. What went wrong?

What’s Happening with Sweden’s COVID Experiment?

At last count, 134,000 Swedes have caught COVID-19. Yesterday, there were over 4,000 new coronavirus cases. Over 6,000 people have died in Sweden from this virus.

To Americans, of course, that seems almost inconsequential. As I write this, we have topped over 100,000 new cases in a single day. More than 9.5 million people have come down with SARS-CoV-2 and deaths equal nearly 235,000.

Statistics from Sweden’s COVID Experiment:

Keep in mind that the population of the U.S. is nearly 330 million. The population of Sweden is around 10.5 million. Let’s review the last three months. Sweden had more cases last summer per 100,000 people than any other country in Europe. That includes Norway, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the UK and Belgium.

Comparing Curves in Europe to the U.S.

Sweden's COVID experiment has disappointing results

Cumulative COVID-19 Cases over Prior 14 Days per 100,000 People in European Countries vs. U.S.

The source of this data is from the ECDC (European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control)

Europe Now:

This fall, though, Belgium is a basket case. The country has the most cases of any nation in Europe. Outbreaks in France, Spain, Austria, Italy and the UK have also soared. And Sweden is creeping up. Although Sweden’s death rate per 100,000 people is not quite as high as that in the U.S., it far exceeds the death rate in Norway and Finland.

The Prime Minister Describes Sweden’s COVID Experiment:

The Prime Minister of Sweden is Stefan Löfven. This week he offered the following comments to his countrymen:

“We have a very serious situation.”

“More and more intensive care beds are now being used to treat COVID patients. The respite we got this summer is over.”

Johan Carlson is Director General of the Public Health Agency of Sweden. His assessment:

“we have a long, tough winter in front of us.”

Dr. Anders Tegnell, Herd Immunity and Sweden’s COVID Experiment:

Sweden’s state epidemiologist is Dr. Anders Tegnell. He has been praised and vilified for his less aggressive approach over the summer. Some people believed he was trying to achieve so-called herd immunity for Sweden.

Here is what Dr. Tegnell is saying now about Sweden’s COVID experiment:

“Overall, the development is moving in the wrong direction in many different ways…The main issue now is to really limit close contact to the immediate family.”

This week, Dr. Tegnell was quoted in the German newspaper, Die Zeit:

“There has been no infectious disease in history in which herd immunity has completely stopped the transmission without a vaccination beforehand. And that won’t happen with COVID-19 either.”

“Even if younger people have less severe disease and die less often, it can still happen. Accepting that is not good from a public health perspective,”

Dr. Tegnell responded directly to a key question: Was herd immunity the goal of the Swedish strategy?

The answer:


He went on to tell the Die Zeit reporter:

“Striving for herd immunity is neither ethical nor otherwise justifiable.”

There is a recognition by Swedish health authorities that cases are climbing.

One medical director, Eva Melander, stated:

“We need to press the emergency brake to stop this development now.”

With hospitals nearing capacity, especially in their intensive care units, Swedes are being asked to work from home, interact with no one but the family members under the same roof, and avoid indoor spaces with other people.

Sweden’s COVID Experiment Has Changed!

The new rules for eight of the country’s 21 regions are very different from last summer. These changes affect 70% of the population.

People will be required to:

• “Refrain from being in indoor environments such as shops, shopping centres, museums, libraries, swimming pools and gyms. Necessary visits to for example grocery stores and pharmacies are OK.

• “Refrain from attending, for example, meetings, concerts, performances, sports training, matches and competitions. This does not apply to sports training for children and young people born 2005 or later.

• “If possible, avoid physical contact with other people than the ones you live with. This includes for example attending or throwing a party or similar social gatherings. Necessary close contact, such as medical appointments, are still OK.

• “Businesses, organisations, and workplaces should also take measures to ensure that visitors or employees are able to follow the local coronavirus recommendations. This could include limiting the number of visitors and making sure staff can work from home.”

There is also a rule for Uppsala that states:

• “Avoid public transport or other public means of transportation.”

Prime Minister Löfven made it clear that this was not:

“some kind of friendly, general advice. It is expected that everyone who is subject to these recommendations will follow them all day, every day.”

Sweden’s COVID Experiment vs. the U.S. Reality:

Many Americans have pointed to Sweden’s COVID experiment as a model for the U.S. They are convinced that we have messed up and should be relaxing restrictions. Here are just a few comments that illustrate that thinking:

Janis says that Sweden’s COVID experiment worked:

“I was reading how well Sweden seems to have done with controlling COVID-19. They did not lock down and were given freedom as to wearing a mask. The vulnerable were told to isolate. They seem to be back to normal. The U.S. should take a good look into why it seems for now it has worked out well for Sweden!”

Julie believed in Sweden’s COVID experiment:

“If you want real data, look at Sweden. No lockdowns, no masks, kids in school and most importantly, NO RESURGENCE because they achieved herd immunity. And yes, they had deaths, but not as many as Spain, Italy and the UK. All the countries that locked down and wore masks are now having severe second waves and initiating more lockdowns and intensified mandates.”

In July, Will offered this thoughtful perspective:

“In life experience is always, I mean ALWAYS, the true teacher. Moving forward there is and will be data from all over the world on what works and what does not. That is, if we can continue to work together as one human species on one small planet who really need each other to sort this all out.

“Sweden, Belarus, Russia are at one end with perhaps South Korea or New Zealand at the other of the scale of effectiveness. We will see what works over time and see whether the second wave comes this fall/winter and how severe it is. And like every other sickness, better methods of treatment and prevention will evolve.”

Final Words:

People in Sweden actually follow recommendations from their health experts and government authorities. That is also true in countries like South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand. Many Americans like to think of themselves as rugged individualists. As a result, they may have a hard time acting on the kind of recommendations that were issued by the Swedish government.

We had hoped that Sweden’s COVID experiment would work. However, that does not appear to be the case. As Will suggests, life experience and data will tell us what works and what does not.

It would seem that much of the U.S. and Europe, including Sweden, will be in for a hard winter when it comes to COVID-19. That’s why Sweden is initiating these new measures to reduce transmission.

Let’s believe Dr. Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist when he said:

“There has been no infectious disease in history in which herd immunity has completely stopped the transmission without a vaccination beforehand. And that won’t happen with COVID-19 either.”

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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