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Fact check: Sweden has not achieved herd immunity, is not proof that lockdowns are useless

With hundreds of thousands of views and over 3,000 shares on Facebook, a video produced by the conservative U.S. nonprofit PragerU claims that “Sweden is the proof that lockdowns are useless” in stemming the spread of COVID-19 and that its population likely has “herd immunity” due to the lack of nationwide shutdowns. These claims are false.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS

The video in question, which shows the organization’s founder Dennis Prager sitting on a chair by a fireplace with the headline “’Follow the Science’ Is a LIE” can be seen here and here .

The following fact check explores the current state of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Sweden, the country’s response to the pandemic over the past several months, and the number of additional infections needed to possibly reach herd immunity.

CURRENT COVID-19 SITUATION IN SWEDEN

With the highest daily average reported on Nov. 12, COVID-19 infections in Sweden are currently at 99% of the peak, with an average of 4,625 new infections reported each day. At the time of this article’s publication, there have been 257,934 infections and 6,891 confirmed coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country since the pandemic began (here). The Scandinavian county had 10,352,390 inhabitants as of mid-2020 (here).

According to mortality analyses from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center (here), the case fatality rate in Sweden is 2.6% -- higher than that of neighboring Finland (1.6%), Norway (0.9%) and Denmark (1.0%), as well as the United States (2.0%). As a country, Sweden has had 66.76 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 7.23 in Finland, 6.28 in Norway, 14.59 in Denmark, and 82.72 in the United States.

As shown here by Our World in Data, a scientific publication run by Oxford University researchers, Sweden’s daily COVID-19 deaths per million increased by 1,200% between Aug. 1 and Dec. 1.

SWEDEN IS NOT “PROOF THAT LOCKDOWNS ARE USELESS”

As Prager states in the video, “Sweden did not lock down” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike many countries around the world seeking to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus infections by shutting down places like schools, workplaces and international borders, Sweden became an international outlier, shunning official lockdowns and widespread face mask use and relying on citizens to voluntarily follow such precautions as social distancing to help curb the spread of the virus ( here , here ).

In late June, Sweden announced a commission to evaluate its pandemic response, reacting to criticism over a death toll far exceeding that of its neighbors (here). At the time, more than 5,300 Swedes had died compared to around 250 in Norway, 600 in Denmark and 325 in Finland, all of which have populations around half the size.

Amid a summer lull in infections (here), Anders Tegnell, the country’s top epidemiologist and architect of its unorthodox pandemic strategy, predicted that Sweden was likely to see local outbreaks but no big second wave of COVID-19 cases in the autumn (here).

As explained in a Sept. 18 article published by McGill University’s Office for Science and Society (here), Sweden, despite not implementing mandatory lockdowns, has in some ways “adapted to a new normal” that for many has meant using hand sanitizer and meeting friends outdoors.

As outlined in the McGill analysis, however, workers in long-term care homes have lacked personal protective equipment, and more than half the COVID-19 deaths in Sweden happened in care homes for the elderly – a fact public health authorities admitted was due in part to their own failures.

In addition, the public health agency’s decision not to communicate the risk of asymptomatic spreaders (here) and its ambivalence on mask-wearing “may also have been responsible for a false sense of reassurance,” the McGill article states.

Sweden, setting daily new case records through much of November, is currently struggling to contain a growing second wave of the disease (here).

On Nov. 12, Tegnell himself acknowledged the country was battling a second wave of the pandemic after suggesting in August such a scenario was unlikely (here).

According to the Washington Post (here), “even Sweden appears to be abandoning the Swedish model,” with national authorities banning gatherings of more than eight people and banning alcohol sales at restaurants and bars after 10 p.m.

As reported here by Reuters, Sweden registered 17,265 new coronavirus cases between Nov. 20 and 24, and 15,084 new cases recorded during the corresponding period one week prior (here).

Based on the information reported above, Dennis Prager’s claim that “Sweden is the proof that lockdowns are useless” is not accurate.

A study published in July by the University of Virginia School of Medicine (here) argued that the lack of a nationwide lockdown had increased COVID-19 deaths in Sweden.

At the time the study was conducted, Sweden’s per capita death rate was nearly four times that of Denmark, nearly seven times that of Finland, and more than seven times that of Norway -- all countries that had enacted much stricter measures than Sweden.

A previous Reuters fact check on the effectiveness of lockdowns amid the pandemic is available here .

SWEDEN HAS NOT ACHIEVED HERD IMMUNITY

Prager claims in the video that Sweden has “probably” achieved “herd immunity,” defined here by the Mayo Clinic as the point at which “a large portion of a community (the herd) becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, “there are two paths to herd immunity for COVID-19 — vaccines and infection.” With promising vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca awaiting approval (here), the herd immunity Prager refers to the kind reliant on community infection.

With 257,934 total reported infections, only about 2.5% of Sweden’s 10.2 million residents so far have “officially” had COVID-19 ( here , (here ).  

A study published in the Lancet medical journal on Nov. 4 (here) estimates the level of herd immunity required to block SARS-CoV-2 transmission to be about 60 to 72%.

Even if “unofficial” infections were higher than 2.5%, they’re unlikely to have reached the level needed for herd immunity. Using the lower end of this estimate, a total of more than 6.1 million people in Sweden would need to have been infected to achieve herd immunity. Based on the higher end, more than 7.2 million would need to have been infected.

Regarding herd immunity, on Nov. 24 Tegnell said in a Stockholm briefing that “We see no signs of immunity in the population that are slowing down the infection right now.” (here) A November report from the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter said about a third of Stockholmers tested had antibodies (here).

The possibility of reinfection with COVID-19 poses another obstacle to achieving herd immunity through community infection ( here, here ). According to the Mayo Clinic, “further research is needed to determine the protective effect of antibodies to the virus in those who have been infected” (here).

As of this article’s publication, PragerU did not respond to Reuters request for comment.

The Reuters Fact Check team previously unpacked a misleading PragerU video presenting climate change statements without key context, here .

VERDICT

False. The current COVID-19 situation in Sweden is not “proof that lockdowns are useless.” COVID-19 infection and death statistics show new increases in November 2020 meaning Sweden has not achieved herd immunity.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here .   

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