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STOCKHOLM — The debate over Sweden’s controversial no-lockdown coronavirus strategy flared again after its architect, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, appeared to suggest the country's approach had been flawed.
“If we encountered the same disease, with what we know about it today, I think we would end up doing in between what Sweden did and what the rest of the world did," Tegnell told public service radio station Sveriges Radio in an interview broadcast Wednesday. “Clearly there is room for improvement.”
Opponents immediately seized on the comments and used them to round on Tegnell and the Public Health Agency he represents.
“This is a particularly astonishing statement,” Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats, said in a tweet. “For months, critics have been consistently dismissed ... and now suddenly this."
Lena Einhorn, an author, virologist and high-profile critic of the Swedish approach, said Tegnell’s comments appeared to be “a bit of a tactical retreat.”
However, at his daily press briefing in Stockholm, Tegnell pushed back against the idea that he was changing tack and reiterated his view that Sweden’s overall strategy had been correct.
“We continue to believe the strategy is good but then there are always improvements we can make,” he told reporters.
The flare-up reflects the heightened interest in Sweden’s unique approach to tackling coronavirus and whether its light-touch strategy — it left schools and businesses open and people have been largely free to move around — will prove a wise move or a damaging mistake over the long term.
Speaking to POLITICO after the news conference, Tegnell said his comment that a revised solution would be “between what Sweden did and the rest of the world did” did not represent an about-face, but merely that countries should be willing to learn from each other and improve their approaches.
“If you ask my colleagues in any country, they would probably say the same thing,” Tegnell said. “If we knew a lot more today, our strategies would have been slightly different."
Sweden has been in sharp focus since it decided to diverge from conventional wisdom on how to tackle the pandemic in mid-March. While neighboring countries like Norway, Denmark and Finland imposed a rapid lockdown to push the virus back, Sweden’s approach was to allow a slow spread of the virus while protecting vulnerable groups, especially the elderly.
But as the death rate has mounted, particularly among the elderly in care homes, concern about Sweden’s approach has grown.
The number of deaths per million in Sweden, at 450, is below the worst-hit countries in Europe, including the U.K. and Spain, but has now spiked to 10 times that of Norway and eight times that of Finland.
Around half of those of who have died of COVID-19 in Sweden were residents in elderly care homes and Tegnell has previously acknowledged that efforts to keep coronavirus out of care homes have been a failure.
Some experts have been highly critical, and in late April, 22 experts penned an editorial saying the Public Health Agency’s approach had been a failure and calling on the government to force a change of tack.
Einhorn, one of the 22, told POLITICO that the government must now move forward with more stringent measures including broad testing and contact tracing and quarantining of household members as soon as someone in a family is sick.
“It cannot go on like this,” she said. “If you look at the curves, Sweden is the only one among the high-death countries, with the possible exception of the U.S., which is staying high.”
There has also been international concern. Last week, Denmark and Norway excluded Sweden from a deal to allow freer travel for tourists in Scandinavia over the summer. The Czech Republic also designated Sweden one of only two countries in Europe with a “high risk” of coronavirus infection.
However, Tegnell remained positive, saying that he believes Sweden remains better placed than some of its neighbors ahead of a possible second wave of coronavirus which experts fear could sweep Europe.
“We are looking at our models and it looks like a second wave in Stockholm would be very small," he said. "In other parts of the country, where we have had much less of a spread, there might a bit more of a wave but still at a low level because there are not so many people living there.”
He estimated that between 20 and 25 percent of people in Stockholm could now be immune to the virus and that Sweden as a whole could be better-placed than Norway and Finland.
“If this disease behaves like other similar diseases, I would say that Sweden should be in a better position because we know that the background immunity will affect the speed of the spread,” he said.