Just 7.3% of Stockholm’s inhabitants had developed Covid-19 antibodies by the end of April, according to a study, raising concerns that the country’s light-touch approach to the coronavirus may not be helping it build up broad immunity.
The research by Sweden’s public health agency comes as Finland warned it would be risky to welcome Swedish tourists after figures suggested the country’s death rate per capita was the highest in Europe over the seven days to 19 May.
Sweden’s state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, said the antibodies figure was “a bit lower than we’d thought”, but added that it reflected the situation some weeks ago and he believed that by now “a little more than 20%” of the capital’s population had probably contracted the virus.
However, the public health agency had previously said it expected about 25% to have been infected by 1 May and Tom Britton, a maths professor who helped develop its forecasting model, said the figure from the study was surprising.
“It means either the calculations made by the agency and myself are quite wrong, which is possible, but if that’s the case it’s surprising they are so wrong,” he told the newspaper Dagens Nyheter. “Or more people have been infected than developed antibodies.”
Björn Olsen, a professor of infectious medicine at Uppsala University, said herd immunity was a “dangerous and unrealistic” approach. “I think herd immunity is a long way off, if we ever reach it,” he told Reuters after the release of the antibody findings.
Tegnell has denied herd immunity is a goal in itself, saying Sweden aims instead to slow the spread of the virus enough for health services to cope. But he has also said countries that imposed strict lockdowns could be more vulnerable to a second wave of infections because a smaller percentage of their populations would be immune.
In April, officials estimated one third of Stockholm residents would have developed antibodies to the coronavirus by early May, subsequently suggesting that the capital could reach herd immunity of between 40% and 60% by the middle of June.
Relying on citizens to act responsibly, Sweden has closed schools for the over-16s and banned gatherings of more than 50, but asked – rather than ordered – people to avoid non-essential travel, to work from home and stay at home if they are elderly or ill. Shops, restaurants and gyms have remained open.
Polls show a large majority of Swedes support and are generally complying with their government’s more relaxed, less coercive strategy, which stands in stark contrast to the strict mandatory lockdowns imposed by many EU countries.
Google records suggest trips to shops and cafes by residents of the Stockholm area are down 20%-40%, while passenger numbers on public transport have fallen by 30%-40%.
But the approach has been heavily criticised by some Swedish academics as the number of coronavirus deaths in the country has risen, far exceeding those of its Nordic neighbours.
While the overall coronavirus death rate per million is greater in Italy (535), Spain (597) or the UK (538), Sweden’s (376) is far in advance of Norway’s (44), Denmark’s (96) and Finland’s (55) – countries with similar welfare systems and demographics, but which imposed strict lockdowns.
According to the scientific online publication Ourworldindata.com, Covid-19 deaths in Sweden were the highest in Europe per capita in a rolling seven-day average between 12 and 19 May. The country’s 6.25 deaths per million inhabitants a day was just above the UK’s 5.75.
The government’s decision to avoid a strict lockdown is thought unlikely to spare the Swedish economy. Although retail and entertainment spending has not collapsed quite as dramatically as elsewhere, analysts say the country will probably not reap any long-term economic benefit.
The European commission has said it expects Sweden’s gross domestic product to contract by more than 6% this year, on a par with much of the continent, while the country’s central bank has estimated an even sharper fall of 7%-10%, with unemployment forecast to rise to as much as 10.4%.
The World Health Organization has warned against pinning hopes on herd immunity as a means of containing the coronavirus, saying last week that studies had found antibodies in only 1%-10% of the global population.
Critics such as Olsen say Sweden has done “too little, too late” and note that the government’s laissez-faire approach has been catastrophic for older people, with roughly half the country’s 3,831 deaths so far occurring in care homes.
Tegnell’s predecessor as chief epidemiologist, Annika Linde, told Dagens Nyheter this week that the country’s strategy towards care homes had been “completely insufficient. The problems were underestimated. It was a clear misjudgment.”
The government has admitted serious failings in care homes and this month announced a big increase in funding for the sector, but remains adamant that the country’s relatively high number of deaths per capita is not a consequence of its decision not to impose a lockdown.
In other coronavirus developments around the world:
Media in Iran reported that more than 10,000 healthcare workers have been infected, as health officials in war-ravaged Yemen and Gaza expressed mounting concern about waves of new cases.
China, where the virus originated, opened its biggest political event of the year, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, after months of delay.
Another 2.4 million US workers filed for unemployment insurance last week, meaning close to 39 million people in the US have lost their jobs in just nine weeks.
A quarter of US citizens have little or no interest in taking a coronavirus vaccine, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, with 36% saying they would be less willing to take a vaccine if Donald Trump said it was safe.
The pharmaceutical group AstraZeneca said it had capacity to produce 1bn doses of University of Oxford’s potential Covid-19 vaccine and will begin supply in September if clinical trials are successful.
Experts warned South Africa could have up to 50,000 Covid-19 deaths and as many as 3 million infections by the end of the year.
The head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) warned that the Tokyo Games would have to be scrapped if they were not held next year.
The official number of coronavirus deaths in Russia reached 3,099.
Afghanistan’s health ministry said it had run out of hospital beds for Covid-19 patients in most parts of the war-torn country.
Japan’s prime minister said a state of emergency in Tokyo and its surrounding regions could end as early as next week.