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Sweden's excessive variety of coronavirus deaths may very well be linked to a gentle flu season, the chief scientist says

People walk on Stranvagen in Stockholm on September 19, 2020.

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND | AFP | Getty Images

The Swedish chief epidemiologist has attributed the high number of coronavirus deaths in recent winters in part to mild flu outbreaks.

"If many people die of the flu in winter, fewer people die of heat waves the following summer. In this case, many died from Covid-19," Anders Tegnell, Sweden's chief epidemiologist, told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter earlier this week.

"What has now been seen is that the countries that have had relatively low influenza mortality in the last two or three years, like Sweden, have very high excess mortality in Covid-19," he said, according to a translation in the newspaper The Times provided.

"Those who have had high flu death rates in the past two winters, such as Norway, have relatively low Covid mortality rates. The same trend has been seen in several countries. This may not be the whole explanation, but part of it. "

Much attention was paid to Sweden during the coronavirus pandemic as it was controversial not to completely block its public life and economy. Most of its neighbors and Europe did so when coronavirus cases increased in the spring.

The Swedish Health Department, where Tegnell is the chief epidemiologist, instead recommended mostly voluntary measures such as good hygiene, guidelines on social distancing and, if possible, working from home.

However, bars, restaurants, most schools and shops remained open, and face masks are not widely used. However, Sweden has banned mass gatherings and visits to old people's homes, although this latter restriction is expected to be lifted soon, despite a high death toll from Covid-19 in such facilities.

The Swedish no lockdown policy was seen by Tegnell as a way to achieve some level of herd immunity in the population, he told CNBC back in April.

The herd immunity of a population, normally achieved through vaccination, is achieved when around 60% of its citizens are found to be immune. With no vaccine currently available for the coronavirus, scientists have been studying closely whether exposure to and recovery from Covid-19 leads to long-term immunity.

The pursuit of herd immunity has proven controversial in Sweden, as the spread of the virus (albeit with some measures) puts vulnerable groups such as the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions at greater risk of getting seriously ill and potentially dying. In July, WHO officials warned that patients who recover from the virus could potentially get it again, saying that some studies suggest that immunity may wear off after a few months.

Sweden has reported a higher number of infections and deaths than its neighbors, despite having roughly double the population of its neighbors Denmark, Finland and Norway at around 10 million people. To date, Sweden has recorded nearly 90,000 cases and 5,870 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. Denmark, on the other hand, had fewer than 25,000 cases and 641 deaths.

In contrast to the major European economies of France, Spain and the UK, where coronavirus cases are picking up again in what has been termed the second wave of the pandemic, it was initially believed that Sweden would avoid a resurgence. However, outbreaks have occurred among sports teams in recent weeks, and the increasing cases in the capital Stockholm mean the city could now be headed for further restrictions.

"Stockholm has seen a significant increase in all age groups recently," Tegnell said at a press conference, Dagens Nyheter reported on Tuesday. "We are discussing with Stockholm whether we need additional options to take measures to reduce transmission."

What possible measures could be introduced was not discussed, but Stockholm's Health and Medical Director Björn Eriksson, who was present at the press conference, said an upward trend in the Stockholm area could lead to "another very serious situation".

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