The problem is, the science isn’t in on whether immunity is building in Sweden at all, after the country resisted lockdowns and let the virus spread through much of its population.
The UK has been experiencing record high numbers in daily infections, yet Johnson tightened restrictions only slightly, placing more emphasis on personal responsibility to prevent viral transmission, as Swedish authorities have done. The most significant change to the rules is a 10 p.m. curfew for pubs, bars and restaurants, forcing them to close just an hour earlier than they typically did. Now only table service is allowed, to avoid people lining up at bars to order food and drinks, as is the case in Sweden.
As most of the Western world went into lockdown over the spring, Sweden’s response was an outlier. It only issued advice to its citizens to practice social distancing and personal hygiene. Sweden typically doesn’t mix public health and politics, and it doesn’t typically use the law to influence behavior to protect people’s health. So it kept open its bars and restaurants, as well as schools for under-16s, as other countries had them shuttered.
But even Sweden’s government now admits that this likely contributed to its high death toll of more than 5,800 people in the country of around 10 million. Almost half of those deaths occurred in Sweden’s care homes for the elderly.
While UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has insisted that likening the UK’s new measures to Sweden’s is a mischaracterization, a Downing Street spokesperson confirmed to CNN that the Prime Minister took advice from the architect of Sweden’s response, Anders Tegnell, just two days before he announced his Swedish-style changes.
“The Prime Minister canvassed a wide variety of scientific opinions over the weekend and on Sunday he took evidence from a number of scientists, which he used to formulate the package of measures he introduced,” the spokesperson said. “It was an opportunity for people to give advice freely.”
Herd immunity debate resurfaces
It’s too soon to declare victory in Sweden, and even officials in the country are making clear they are not out of the woods.
But there has been an uptick in Sweden in the past week, and Tegnell himself has conceded that authorities may now need to implement tighter restrictions at the local level and recommend mask-wearing in public areas, like shops, for the first time since the virus arrived — something he has spoken out against doing for months. On Thursday last week, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven described the increase in cases as “worrying.”
Sweden’s Public Health Agency denied the country was backpedaling in its approach, saying in an email to CNN that it had always been prepared to advise the use of masks and impose restrictions in certain situations.
But the recent interest in Sweden has marked a return to the debate on “herd immunity,” the idea that if a certain percentage of your population is immune to a virus, the virus cannot transmit easily and will eventually die out. Scientists say that many viruses can be combated this way when 60-70% of a population is immune but that is usually achieved with a vaccine.
During the pandemic, much of the talk about immunity has focused on antibodies, but researchers are also looking at T cells, which can fight a virus after infection and play a role in immunity, as well.