Sweden plays down immunity hopes as second COVID-19 wave gathers force

Commuters at Stockholm Central metro station catch trains during rush hours

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Immunity to COVID-19 in Sweden is likely lower than previously estimated, the country's top epidemiologist and architect of its unorthodox pandemic strategy said on Thursday, as daily deaths in the disease rose to their highest level in months.

Chief Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, whose rejection of lockdowns and widespread use of face masks made Sweden a European outlier, also acknowledged the country was battling a second wave of the pandemic after suggesting in August such a scenario was unlikely.

"I don't think the definition is that important, but we see community spread in many regions simultaneously right now," Tegnell told a news conference.

Sweden registered 4,658 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, just below a daily record set last week, Health Agency data showed, in a resurgence of the virus that has seen hospitalisations and intensive care admissions mount.

Tegnell played down hopes that Sweden's severe spring outbreak of the virus might offer sizable protection through widespread immunity, saying the number of undetected infections had likely been lower than previously believed.

"The number of people we don't find with diagnostics is with high probability smaller than we thought," he said.

While Health Agency officials have stressed so-called herd immunity, where enough people in a population have developed immunity to an infection to effectively stop the disease from spreading, has never been a goal, it has been mentioned as a possible boon of Sweden's strategy.

Sweden recorded 40 new deaths, taking the total to 6,122. While below peaks of more than 100 during the spring outbreak, it was far higher than during the late summer and early autumn when deaths slowed to single digits most days.

Relative to the size of its population, Sweden has suffered many times more COVID-19 deaths than its Nordic neighbours, though not quite as many as Europe's worst-hit nations, such as Spain and Britain.

(Reporting by Johan Ahlander; editing by Niklas Pollard)