Highly controversial Swedish epidemiologist joins WHO

Anders Tegnell, the highly controversial Swedish epidemiologist who
in spring of 2020 claimed that “face masks are an easy solution, and I am deeply distrustful of easy solutions to complex problems,” or stated that lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 were akin to “using a hammer to kill a fly,” has joined the WHO as a vaccine coordinator.

“Sweden wants to further contribute to the global work on equal access to vaccines against COVID-19 and has appointed Anders Tegnell to the WHO,” the Swedish Health Authorities announced last week in a communiqué. Tegnell started his new job last Monday, March 14, as “a senior expert” in a unit tasked with coordinating the work between WHO, the Vaccine Alliance (GAVI), and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). “I have worked with vaccines for 30 years, and at the same time, I have always been passionate about international issues,” said Tegnell, 65, when commenting on his new position. “It remains imperative that the vaccines reach those countries that have not had the financial means to buy their own vaccines.”

His resignation as the country’s chief epidemiologist follows the publication, by a commission of experts, of a 728-page long report on Sweden’s response to the pandemic. The commission, appointed by the government after pressure from the parliamentary opposition, concluded that “in February–March 2020, Sweden should have opted for more rigorous and intrusive disease prevention and control measures,” in what amounts to a repudiation of Tegnell’s policy, as well as the government’s over-reliance on its experts.

The commission said the government had delegated too much responsibility to the country’s health agency, and that it was not always clear who took decisions.

In winter and spring 2020, following Tegnell’s recommendations, Sweden opted for lax and voluntary measures, keeping its schools, restaurants, bars, and other businesses open. Wearing masks was never recommended. Tegnell argued that voluntary measures could achieve the same results as lockdown without damaging trust between authorities and the public.

Tegnell’s critics maintain that more intrusive measures might have saved lives during the first phase of the pandemic, and that the government should have acted much more decisively when death rates in Sweden far exceeded those of other Scandinavian countries—which, for a time, closed their borders to Swedes. “Sweden tries out new status: pariah state,” the New York Times wrote at the time.

But if the panel’s eight experts, including economists and political scientists, concluded that stronger measures should have been taken in the early stages of the pandemic, they also consider that Sweden’s policy was “fundamentally correct.” The approach meant “that citizens retained more of their personal freedom than in many other countries.”

It is an important take-away, according to leading infectious diseases expert Manuel Battegay. The chief physician at Basel University Hospital and former vice president of the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force tells The Geneva Observer: “The policies that different countries took in their response to the pandemic were rightly very much in line with their values and culture. The Swedes widely accepted the lax approach because community responsibility and trust in healthcare is high in the country.” While recognizing that Sweden later had to correct its course and adopt stronger measures, he tells The G|O that “Switzerland’s response was not significantly different from Sweden’s.” Battegay points to a just published Lancet study that shows that Switzerland has virtually identical excess mortality figures to Sweden and Denmark, and lower figures than Germany, which adopted stronger measures.

The WHO was unavailable to comment on Anders Tegnell’s mission.


(Thank you to our colleagues at Svenska Dagbladet newspaper for their help with this report.)