Sweden used a controversial way to fight coronavirus. Should the US follow?

  • Sweden is not enforcing lockdowns to fight coronavirus.
  • Its leaders think Stockholm will reach "herd immunity" to protect its population by mid-May.
  • The US could see almost 2 million deaths if it followed Sweden's path.

Narrator: During the COVID-19 crisis, you've probably heard one term over and over again: herd immunity.

It happens when most of a population becomes immune to an infectious disease, decreasing the health toll on a population and the opportunities for the virus to transmit — and thus survive.

We did it with measles and mumps. And now, we're figuring out how to get there with the novel coronavirus.Advertisement

But one country is getting a lot of press for aiming to get herd immunity faster.

Anchor 1: Sweden has taken a more low-key approach to the pandemic.

Anchor 2: Some US protesters have adopted Sweden as an example.
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Anchor 3: Sweden is prioritizing herd immunity.

Narrator: And some people are asking why isn't the US following suit. There are two main ways of getting to herd immunity: through widespread vaccination or natural infection and recovery.Advertisement

Herd immunity requires at least 60% to 70% of people to achieve immunity, though some believe a 90% rate is needed. The herd's immunity will help protect those without immunity. An infected person would mostly come in contact with immune people, stopping more infections.

The US implemented lockdowns to slow the spread while waiting for a vaccine. The problem with this method is that vaccine development takes a long time. To be clear: 18 months is the short end of the vaccine timeline.

Dr. Elliot Fisher: Dr. Fauci is hopeful that we can have one in 18 months, but that would be a miracle, I believe, because that would require every single test of this vaccine to go well and have no safety problems and sufficient immunity with that first vaccine that we test. I think that's very unlikely.Advertisement

Narrator: The COVID-19 virus is part of the same coronavirus family that caused the early-2000s SARS outbreak, so scientists have had a jump start.

But, even with the groundwork research done and fast-tracking of any trials, it takes time and exposure to judge whether a vaccine is safe and effective. In the meantime, countries are forced to lock down and physically distance in order to slow the spread and avoid overwhelming the healthcare systems.

But the problems are twofold. First, physical distancing isn't as effective as experts would like — in part because people have to be vigilant. Advertisement

Fisher: It's still increasing in every region in the country in case numbers of cases are still going up. That's not a recipe that says, oh, we can relax and go back to work.

Narrator: Second, while the lockdown is happening, the economy is faltering, unemployment sits just below 15% with millions of American out of a job, protests have sparked demanding the country reopen, and even still, certain parts of the country's hospitals are mostly filled with COVID-19 patients despite attempts to slow its spread.

Some have pointed to Sweden's example of what should have been done — which is the second path to herd immunity: natural infection and recovery. Advertisement

Lena Hallengren: We're not shutting down schools for younger children or children's care facilities and we have no regulation that forces citizens to remain in their homes.

Narrator: Sweden didn't use mandatory lockdowns. The Swedish government did close some schools, and limited gatherings to less than 50, but bars, restaurants, and gyms remain open, though physical distancing is encouraged.Advertisement

The goal is to allow life to continue as normally as possible. There is no enforcement of social distancing by the police, and state-mandated closures have been minimal.

Johan Carlson: There are no clear correlation between the lockdown measures taken in countries and the effect on the pandemic.

Narrator: That was said in mid-April, but now countries that eased restrictions, like South Korea and Germany, are seeing spikes in cases.Advertisement

Critics argue Sweden is trying to achieve herd immunity through a natural path at the expense of its citizens. And though its health ministry says that is not official policy, it's also saying that it's working.

According to Sweden's health ministry, over a quarter of Stockholm's residents show antibodies for COVID-19. The ministry predicts herd immunity of 60% will be reached by mid-May.

However, this method could overwhelm the healthcare system, leading to many deaths, depending on how deadly the disease is.Advertisement

And the numbers in Sweden paint a grim picture. A significant portion of the country's deaths have been in nursing homes — a fact the government admitted was a failure in its strategy. And the death rate in Sweden is more than 22 deaths per 100,000 people, a number significantly higher than its neighbors and the US — even though it's lower than other European countries like Spain and Italy.

Sweden's course could help its economy recover quicker, though like the rest of the world, it's still suffering.

Martin Hession: For us personally, we've let go the majority of our staff, so it's been difficult in many respectsAdvertisement

Narrator: Natural immunity also requires infection and recovery. But, for a certain number there will be no recovery. To reach the low end, 60% of Americans, or almost 200 million people, would have to be infected, recover, and gain immunity.

But, this means 1%, or nearly 2 million people, would die. This using a 1% mortality rate. Fisher: Trying to get everybody sick so that we achieve herd immunity. I think that's called "nutty".Advertisement

Narrator: Beyond that, there also isn't enough information to know if recovery from COVID-19 guarantees immunity from the virus.

When a person recovers from a disease, their body usually builds a natural immunity to fight future infection. But immunity from natural infection has several different factors, including the amount of antibodies produced, whether those antibodies can defend against a future infection, and if so, how long will they provide immunity for.

Currently there are no studies proving any of these with COVID-19. We can look to other outbreaks in the coronavirus family and develop educated guesses. But until then, they are still at best just educated guesses.Advertisement

When dealing with a pandemic, the paths to herd immunity are not clean. Both the US path and the Swedish path are a numbers game. One could lead to more deaths, while the other could have astronomical economic impacts. And there is no one-size-fits-all path.

Even comparing US cities doesn't quite work. New York City is the global hotspot. Los Angeles, often compared to New York, suffered relatively few deaths. But LA is a city that sprawls, spreading its population out, while New York is dense, causing less room for physical distancing.

Dr. Fauci said a second wave is inevitable. And as parts of the country reopen, the question is what can change to flatten that second curve.

The best we can do is learn from our past mistakes for when it comes. Take Sweden. While its deaths per 100,000 is higher than its neighbors, more than 87% of those deaths are over the age of 70, a group known to be especially vulnerable. If a second wave comes, Sweden needs to better protect that population. Advertisement

And in America the unknowns will have to be known. Who has had it and recovered? Are they immune now? For how long? Can those who've recovered from COVID-19 go back to work, while the unprotected stay isolated?

During the first wave more than 80,000 people died in the US, as of May 11. Americans can find a way to do better. Because what's at stake are the people around us.

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