Mass Covid-19 testing at Swedish university to investigate infection rate

Starting this week, 20,000 people will be mass tested for Covid-19 in the northern Swedish city of Umeå.

Mass Covid-19 testing at Swedish university to investigate infection rate
A lab engineer prepares a Covid-19 test. File photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

The study at Umeå University has been organised to investigate how ordinary teaching on university campuses affects the spread of infection.

Over two weeks, 20,000 students and university employees will be tested twice – making it Sweden's largest such test so far. The Public Health Agency, National Pandemic Centre, and Swedish army will assist in carrying out the tests.

“It's a big experiment,” Anders Johansson, a researcher specialising in infectious diseases, told Swedish television.

“We test in the first week to see how many have the infection, and then when everyone meets a week later we test how many have caught it.”

As well as being tested twice using self-tests, participants will also be able to fill out optional questionnaires about their symptoms. Anyone with symptoms consistent with coronavirus can take the test at home and have it collected, so that they can follow public health advice to avoid leaving home if sick.

The results will be interesting given the fact that the infection rate has been rising in many countries as they continue opening up society. In Sweden, although there was never a lockdown of the kind seen in most other places, there are concerns about what the autumn will mean for the development of the disease as people return to their places of work and study.

Universities and schools for over-16s switched to remote learning in late March, and although they have been given the green light to welcome students back to campus for the autumn term, many are continuing to offer mostly online learning.

In many countries including Sweden, the disease is now mostly seen to be spreading among young people. 

Although young healthy people are typically less likely to get seriously ill from the coronavirus, one concern is that if the virus spreads among this group it will then be passed on to the more vulnerable members of the population.

The Public Health Agency has said that the results of the Umeå tests could be used “among other things, to give a basis for targeted measures, analysis and modelling”.

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Did Sweden’s state epidemiologist really get a big job at the WHO?

For his supporters, it was well-deserved, for his detractors a case of failing upwards. But when Sweden's Public Health Agency announced this month that state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell was taking a job at the World Health Organisation, both sides assumed it was true.

Did Sweden's state epidemiologist really get a big job at the WHO?

Now, it seems, the job might not be there after all. 

At the start of this month, Sweden’s Public Health Agency announced that Anders Tegnell was resigning to take up a post coordinating vaccine work with the World Health Organisation in Geneva. 

“I’ve worked with vaccines for 30 years and have at the same time always been inspired by international issues,” Tegnell said in the release. “Now I will have the chance to contribute to this comprehensive international work.”

During the first and second waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, Tegnell shot immediately from obscurity into the spotlight, gaining such celebrity status in Sweden that one fan had his profile tattooed onto his arm.

Internationally he was hailed by lockdown sceptics for his reasoned arguments against overly restrictive measures to control the spread of the virus. 

His new WHO appointment was reported all over the world. 

But on Tuesday, the Svenska Daglabdet newspaper revealed that the job had not yet been awarded. A spokesperson for the WHO said at a press conference in Geneva that “there is some confusion”, and that “this is an internal question.” 

According to the newspaper, there is even “a certain level of irritation” behind the scenes at the WHO that Sweden acted too soon and dispatched Tegnell to a job that did not actually exist yet. 

“We have received an offer from Sweden, which is still under discussion,” the organisation’s press spokesperson, Fadela Chaib, told the newspaper. 

On Thursday, the Public Health Agency’s press chief Christer Janson conceded that there had been a mistake and that the negotiation had not been completed.  

“We believed it was done, but it wasn’t,” he told Expressen in an interview. “It’s been a much longer process to get this completed than we thought. There’s been a misunderstanding and we regret that.”