Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell to join WHO

Anders Tegnell, the Swedish state epidemiologist who became a hero for lockdown critics in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, is to step down next week to take up a new post with the World Health Organisation in Geneva.

Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell to join WHO
Swedish state epidemiologist at one of the Public Health Agency’s many press conferences during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Tegnell will be the senior expert in a group coordinating efforts to make the Covid-19 vaccine available to countries without the means to vaccinate their own populations.

“I’ve worked with vaccines for 30 years and have at the same time always been inspired by international issues,” he said in a press release issued by the Public Health Agency of Sweden.

“Now I will have the chance to contribute in this comprehensive international work. It is, of course, extremely important that vaccines go out to all the countries which lack the economic possibility to buy their own vaccines.”

The group Tegnell will be a part of will coordinate work between the WHO, Unicef and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a public-private partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and national governments, chiefly, the UK, US and Norway.

Tegnell will leave his post at the Public Health Agency of Sweden on March 14th, following nine years in the role. He will be replaced by Anders Lindblom, who was most recently the infectious diseases doctor for the Swedish region of Dalarna.

Tegnell in early 2020 shot from being a relatively obscure health official to being a celebrity both internationally and within Sweden, where a fan had his face tattooed onto his arm. 

As well as fronting the daily press conferences of the Public Health Agency, he also gave hundreds if not thousands of interviews to the international media, in which he argued that extreme measures such as school closures, curfews and stay-at-home orders risked doing more harm than good. 

Sweden’s Coronavirus Commission in its final report last month, said that although Sweden’s decision to rely primarily on voluntary measures to control the pandemic had been right, the government had been over-reliant of the advice of experts at the Public Health Agency, and of Tegnell in particular. 

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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.”