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Sweden's coronavirus spread slows, but immunity still a puzzle

Sweden famously took a totally different approach to its Nordic neighbours in trying to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The Swedish strategy allowed people to keep living largely as normal. Stores and restaurants remained open – so too did many schools.

With a COVID-19 death toll of over 5,600, Sweden’s mortality rate from the disease is now around 30 per cent higher than that of the United States, when adjusted for population size.

However, authorities insist that the number of deaths has considerably dropped in recent weeks.

“We’ve actually seen a clearly declining trend in the number of patients in intensive care and also in the number of deaths since the middle of April,” said Anna Mia Ekström, professor of global infectious disease epidemiology and senior infectious disease consultant at the Karolinksa Institute.

On Thursday, the number of coronavirus patients in a hospital in Stockholm has fallen below 100 for the first time since early March, according to The Local.

Ekström said that with the summer holidays, fewer people are at work or in public transport, and they’re spending more time outdoors, so the virus is finding fewer opportunities to spread.

So how close is Sweden to possibly reaching herd immunity?

We don’t know at this point. Scientists are still trying to figure out whether immunity from the new coronavirus can even be reached – and for how long.

Ekström noted that the reproduction number of the epidemic – or R number, which measures the average number of people that one infected person will pass the virus on to – has now declined in Sweden to around 0.6, meaning transmission is declining.

The number of people with antibodies against the new coronavirus, meanwhile, is increasing.

Data published by Sweden’s public health agency in June showed that about 10 per cent of people in Stockholm – the country’s worst affected area – had developed antibodies to COVID-19.

In the past four weeks, 17.6 per cent of the more than 140,000 who signed up for free antibody tests in the capital region returned a positive result.

A recent study from the Karolinska Institute also suggests that people testing negative for coronavirus antibodies may still have some immunity, through specific T-cells that identify and destroy infected cells.

For now, Sweden’s light-touch approach to tackling the coronavirus pandemic has drawn attention and criticism from around the world.

It has also weighed on the popularity ratings of Sweden’s prime minister, Stefan Lofven, who announced last month an inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

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