Johan Giesecke, an advisor to the Director General of the WHO, former Chief Scientist of the EU Centre for Disease Control, and former state epidemiologist of Sweden, returned to UnHerd yesterday to resume his discussion with editor Freddie Sayers, adjourned a year ago. He was one of the first major figures to come out against lockdowns last spring, saying they are not evidence-based, the correct policy is to protect the old and the frail only, and the Imperial College modelling was “not very good”.
While he admits he made some mistakes, he believes that history will judge him kindly, and says: “I think I got most of the things right, actually.”
He gives a solid defence of the outcome in Sweden, ably batting away the “neighbour argument” that says Sweden failed because Norway and Finland did better.
The differences between Sweden and its neighbours are much bigger than people realise from the outside – different systems, different cultural traditions…If you compare Sweden to other European countries [such as the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium] it’s the other way round. On the ranking of excess mortality, Sweden is somewhere in the middle or below the middle of European countries. So I think it’s really Norway and Finland that are the outliers more than Sweden. … They’re more sparsely populated. There are less people per square kilometre in these two countries. There are also much fewer people who were born outside Europe living in these two countries.
He is also rightly dismissive of the charge that Sweden is currently the worst for infections in Europe. While positive cases are up, so is testing, and besides on the most important metric, excess deaths, Sweden has been far below average since the start of February.
Giesecke is direct in his unflattering comparison of the UK’s outcome with Sweden’s:
They’re very similar. And yet one of the countries has had three severe lockdowns and the other has only had voluntary or mostly voluntary measures. That tells us something I think. That lockdowns may not be a very useful tool in the long run.
He admits that he misjudged how quickly vaccines would become available, and is now quite the enthusiast. He has had the AstraZeneca jab and wants everyone to have it: “If we really want to get down to small numbers – we won’t eradicate it, but to small numbers – then I think even children should be vaccinated… I can’t see why not.” He sees vaccines as providing a way out:
If you are vaccinated with two doses and wait the right number of weeks, then… you should be able to live like you did before the pandemic. This disease is sometimes seen as something supernatural, mystical, mythical – but it’s a viral disease like all other diseases. More dangerous than some of them, but it’s not unique, Covid. So a proper vaccine used correctly protects you and means that you don’t infect other people as well…. No vaccine is 100% effective, but we don’t have this discussion about any other vaccine.
He is full of praise for the Swedish approach, and in that his liberal motivations are clear.
Look at the good things with the Swedish system…. One is the schools: we are not destroying the future for classes of children. Another is that Sweden kept to its international agreements — for example in the EU you are not supposed to close your borders with other countries, but that has happened in several countries in Europe. We have made it possible for small businesses like cafes or bicycle shops to survive the pandemic. We have kept democracy. We have trusted people. I think there are a number of benefits from not having a severe lockdown and more of them will come as we do research on this in the future.
He is dismayed by how readily people surrendered their liberty – even in Sweden. A new law has recently been passed giving the Government the power to lock down in the future if it deems it necessary.
People were willing to give up more freedom than I thought they would. It worries me — there are many democratic rules and freedoms that have been curtailed. I think that may be one of the dangerous results of this pandemic.
There is a new law — a pandemic law — which gives the Government more power than it had before, and curtails part of the freedom of the Swedish population… It’s shifted power away from parliament to some extent, which is a new thing in Sweden at least in peacetime.
During the interview Giesecke makes a number of concessions, some of which are more understandable than others. He accepts his predictions about population antibody prevalence were too high, which is fair enough. But he still appears to regard antibodies as the definitive indicator of spread, despite the considerable evidence that a significant proportion of people are exposed or infected but do not develop antibodies because they fight it off with other parts of their immune system, such as T cells. He also seems oddly unfamiliar with the scientific literature on the ineffectiveness of lockdowns, appearing to accept that they may make a difference.
One of the things I got wrong a year ago is the rate of spread of this disease. I thought it would spread quicker. And I also thought it would be more similar in different countries. We can see now that there are big differences in the rates of spread in between countries. It may have to do with lockdown, it may have to do with cultural things in these countries. But there is a big difference between countries.
He also argues that Sweden effectively did lock down, just voluntarily, saying the country had “severe restrictions”.
Sweden has had rather severe restrictions, but we based them on voluntary participation by the inhabitants instead of using laws and police. A lot of people in the world seem to think that Sweden did nothing about the Covid pandemic. That’s wrong. The entire population changed their way of living and it had profound effects on daily life for millions of Swedes, even though you weren’t fined if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. So I would still advocate the Swedish model, even knowing all that.
The problem with this argument is that it essentially accepts the lockdowner position, that “severe” lockdowns are necessary and effective, and that the only reason Sweden could get away without one is because they did it without being forced to. It also suggests going back to normal will be fraught with risk of resurgence. These ideas are not supported by evidence, such as the evidence from US states that reopened last year and stayed open throughout the winter.
Giesecke also seems to concede Sayers’s bizarre claim that Neil Ferguson’s forecasts – of up to 510,000 deaths in the UK from an unmitigated epidemic, 250,000 from a mitigated epidemic and 20,000 with a suppression strategy – were accurate. “You may be right,” he says. “There is quite a difference between half a million and 130,000 – but, yep.”
There certainly is a difference between between 510,000 and 130,000 – a multiple of four in fact – and it’s mathematically illiterate for Sayers to suggest otherwise. Unless, of course, you assume that the lockdowns have prevented hundreds of thousands more deaths. Which lockdowners do believe, naturally, as a fundamental article of faith, despite the clear evidence from places like South Dakota and Florida that did not lock down that they are mistaken. Indeed, Ferguson’s modelling was applied to Sweden by a team at Uppsala University and the predictions were laughably wrong – they predicted 96,000 deaths by the end of June if Sweden stuck with its current policy; the actual figure was 5,333. Sayers makes no mention of this modelling embarrassment, and Giesecke does not draw his attention to it.
But perhaps Giesecke was just being polite to an interviewer who, for all his admirable open-mindedness in who he is willing to interview, does not seem to have developed antibodies to the evidence-free lockdowner ideology. Sayers even claims at one point that the Infection Fatality Rate for the UK and Sweden is as high as 0.9%. A recent meta-analysis by Professor John Ioannidis concluded that the IFR in Europe is more like 0.3%-0.4% (0.15% globally). Sayers doesn’t say where he gets the 0.9% figure from.
The interview is well worth watching in full.