Who are the people behind Sweden’s coronavirus strategy?

Who are the people behind Sweden's coronavirus strategy?
Anders Tegnell and Johan Carlson at a press conference on the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT
These are the faces that are behind the Swedish coronavirus response and the debate surrounding it.

Few of them were well-known in wider society before the coronavirus outbreak, but now these are the people speaking at the daily press conferences and in the media about the situation in Sweden. Many of them shape the policies designed to protect the Swedish population, and which we are all urged to follow. Here's a look at each of their roles and experience.

Anders Tegnell


Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT
 

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See also on The Local:

State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has become the figurehead for Sweden's coronavirus strategy. He's worked on infectious disease strategy at the National Board of Health and Welfare and Swedish Institute of Infectious Disease Control, has a PhD in Medicine and a MSc in Epidemiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

His career has also included three years working for the World Health Organisation in Laos, working with a 1995 Ebola outbreak in Zaire with Doctors Without Borders, and managing the 2009 swine flu outbreak in Sweden.

Tegnell has become a household name in Sweden for his role presenting updates on the coronavirus situation most weekdays. Facebook groups in support of the epidemiologist and his calm approach have garnered tens of thousands of members, but he's also faced widespread criticism for appearing arrogant. Tegnell has admitted failures in the Swedish response, most notably the failure to prevent the disease spreading in elderly care homes.

“Tegnell is drinking beer at Stureplan, we should be pleased about that, writes Peter Kadhammer, who also took the picture”

The 64-year-old typically appears at the press conferences wearing a jumper and jeans, and photos have circulated on social media showing him cycling to work with a backpack and enjoying a beer at a Stockholm cafe. Whether these are displays of level-headed pragmatism or foolish arrogance is a matter of opinion, but for now at least the majority seem to support the agency's decisions, with public trust in the Public Health Agency at around 70 percent.

Read his full CV here.

Johan Carlson


Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

Johan Carlson is the general director of the Public Health Agency, but has been less visible than Tegnell in the coronavirus debate. Carlson has held this role since 2014 when the agency was created, having previously been general director of the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control which was absorbed into the new agency. His current contract expires at the end of March 2021. Between 1999 and 2001 he was a national expert for the EU Commission's public health directorate.

Governments appoint the directors of state agencies, but these positions are supposed to be non-political and are usually kept even following changes in governments, as is the case with Carlson.

Although Carlson's background is in infectious diseases, he has stressed that the agency makes decisions based on what's best for public health overall. He has also said that he has explained to politicians that measures must need to have broad support in society to be effective.

That's one reason that even people in vulnerable groups have been encouraged to continue leaving their homes for their mental and physical health (as long as they avoid social contacts) and that sports activities for young children haven't been stopped.

Anders Wallensten


Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Anders Tegnell's deputy is another Anders. After starting his career as a doctor, Wallensten wrote the first dissertation in Sweden about bird flu, and cites this as the start of his move into epidemiology. Incidentally, his PhD supervisor was one of Sweden's most vocal critics of the coronavirus strategy, Björn Olsen.

He worked for two years at the Health Protection Agency in the UK, and is another alumnus of the Swedish Institute of Infectious Disease Control, where he worked before becoming deputy state epidemiologist, a role he has now held for six years.

Like his colleagues, Wallensten has become a high profile figure during the coronavirus outbreak, despite sometimes receiving more attention for his appearance than his expertise in infectious disease control.

When taking the daily press conferences and speaking with media, he often focuses on highlighting the lack of definitive answers or data, and has told Dagens Nyheter “there is a general feeling that solutions are easier than they are”.

Lena Hallengren


Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

As Minister for Health and Social Affairs, Social Democrat Lena Hallengren also has a role to play in managing the crisis. She has been a member of parliament since 2006 and took on her current role in January 2019.

In an April speech to the World Health Organisation (WHO), she outlined the division of responsibility as follows: “The Government has overall responsibility, but Sweden's public health response is largely based on advice from our expert agencies. Early in this process, the Government decided to let decision-making be guided by available knowledge and evidence on effectiveness. The responsible national agencies, as well as international organisations and authorities such as the WHO, therefore have an important role in our response.”

Speaking to The Local in late May, Hallengren said there was no point at which she would have wanted to impose a full lockdown in Sweden, and that she believed most people were following the recommendations around social distancing.

Read her CV here.

Karin Tegmark Wisell


Photo: Public Health Agency
 

Head of the Public Health Agency's Department for Microbiology, Tegmark Wisell has been another regular representative of the authority at the daily press conferences.

She often speaks about what we know so far about how the disease acts, for example the level of protection provided by antibodies (still unclear), the testing strategy (she has said the agency is not satisfied with the current numbers of tests carried out), and sometimes fills in for Tegnell in giving the general update.

The former state epidemiologists:

Two epidemiologists who are not directly involved in shaping the national guidelines, but have nonetheless become prominent voices during the coronavirus outbreak, are Anders Tegnell's predecessors. 

Johan Giesecke


Photo: Ali Lorestani/TT

Johan Giesecke held the role of state epidemiologist before Tegnell, and today acts as an honorary advisor to the WHO and advisor to the Public Health Agency, working with modelling different outbreak scenarios. Giesecke has a MSc in epidemiology from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where he also taught for several years, and was Chief Scientist of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. 

He has been one of the strongest defenders of the Swedish approach and his appearances in Swedish and global media have sparked both anger and headlines. He has been less cautious in his wording than Tegnell and Carlson, making general statements including claiming “all other countries are doing the wrong thing” and that Sweden's strategy was “the best in the whole world”.

He has taken credit for hiring Tegnell and Carlson, referring to them as “my boys”. But at times he has even directly gone against Public Health Agency guidelines, including telling a Swedish TV programme how he had met his grandchildren indoors despite being over 70.

After journalist Emmanuel Karlsten questioned the fact Giesecke had invoiced the agency for his TV appearances, the agency said Giesecke was not representative of them and he will now pay back those invoices.

Annika Linde


Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/SCANPIX/TT

Another former state epidemiologist, Linde was in the job between Giesecke and Tegnell's tenure, in the years 2005 to 2013. Like Giesecke, she held the position when the mandate was surveillance of infectious diseases; in 2012 there was a restructure at the agency and the responsibility to prevent disease outbreaks also became part of the role.

Linde, who is a member of the Liberal Party in Stockholm, was initially very supportive of the Swedish strategy, and warned that fellow over-70s should follow the authorities' advice to avoid social contacts very closely.

More recently, she has spoken out in media including The Local, saying that some of the deaths due to the virus could have been avoided with a lockdown. She has also criticised Giesecke for his comments praising the strategy.

“My overarching criticism concerns the Swedish attitude: 'We are the only ones who are taking the right approach. A little humility wouldn't be out of place. Perhaps some other countries are simply better at controlling the virus than we are, and we could still adjust some of our policies accordingly. But we would first have to acknowledge that we might have taken some wrong turns,” she told The Local.


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