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Swedish Vaccine Skepticism Is Latest Obstacle to Herd Immunity

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 12/5/2020 Niclas Rolander

(Bloomberg) -- Swedish health authorities acknowledged they need to convert vaccine doubters -- currently just over a quarter of the population -- if they’re to reach enough people to achieve herd immunity.

“I can understand that the acceptance level is fairly low at this point,” Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, said in an interview. “It is still a very theoretical question, as we know very little about the vaccines that are in the pipeline, and the general population knows even less.”

Only 46% of Swedes say they want to be vaccinated, while 26% say they don’t, according to a recent Novus poll. Herd immunity comes when enough people in a community have developed immunity through being either infected or vaccinated. For Covid-19, the percentage is estimated to range from 55% to 82%.

Read: Tracking the Covid-19 Vaccine Rollout Around the Globe

“This will be a very important communication effort, to communicate wisely about vaccines and their effects, to the population,” Tegnell said.

Sweden famously avoided a lockdown, allowing the virus to spread more rapidly than elsewhere. Though herd immunity through exposure was never a declared strategy, Swedish authorities had hoped enough people would develop antibodies to protect against new outbreaks.

The second wave Tegnell once thought Sweden could avoid, however, has now hit the country with a vengeance.

chart: No Immunity © Bloomberg No Immunity

Sweden expects to get enough Covid-19 vaccines to immunize about a fifth of the population in the first quarter, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said on Friday. But authorities are bracing for at least another year with the virus.

The country’s national vaccine coordinator, Richard Bergstrom, said he’s urging skeptics to “keep an open mind.”


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“I hope there’s confidence in the regulatory process,” he said. “And to those who hesitate, I would like to say: Wait and see.”

Read: Pfizer, BioNTech Near 2020 Vaccine Target, Easing Output Concern

Tegnell said he’s hoping more Swedes will accept the vaccine with time. A key strength in Sweden’s favor, he says, is its national health-care system, which has the infrastructure needed to get the vaccine to as broad a segment of the population as possible.

“We have a system that involves many people in health care, whereas in many other countries it is only doctors that administer vaccinations,” he said.

Swine Flu

Many Swedes still remember the country’s efforts a decade ago to fight the H1N1 virus. Following the outbreak of swine flu in 2009, Sweden saw a sudden jump in narcolepsy cases, which was later found to be a side effect of its mass vaccination program. The sleep disorder was particularly widespread among children and adolescents.

The side effects were “extremely unfortunate,” said Tegnell, who was one of the people in charge of the inoculation plan at the time.

Though participation in Sweden’s voluntary child immunization programs remains almost universal, the swine flue episode appears to have dented confidence in new vaccines.

“I think it’s fairly natural that a lot of people have questions,” Tegnell said. “We need to keep on working and give good information.”

(Adds comment from Sweden’s national vaccine coordinator)

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