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  • Some Americans are pushing herd immunity as a way to reopen the economy in the US. 
  • The concept of herd immunity is to stop the transmission of a virus through mass infection — the more people who have antibodies, the quicker mass immunity to the virus will be reached.
  • But it remains unknown if there's long-term immunity to COVID-19, and reaching herd immunity could lead to more deaths.
  • Health officials have called herd immunity dangerous and something that could take years to reach without a vaccine. 
  • Sweden's approach to the novel coronavirus seems to rely on herd immunity, and it has kept businesses open throughout the pandemic. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As Americans agitate for the reopening the economy in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, some of them are looking at one strategy to make it feasible: herd immunity.

You don't need to look further than Sweden's anti-lockdown experiment to see why that wouldn't work.

Sweden has taken a controversially relaxed approach to COVID-19. It has not initiated a nationwide lockdown to flatten the curve. Instead, Sweden seems to be pinning its hopes on herd immunity to stop the transmission of the virus through mass infection.

The idea is if more people are infected and obtain antibodies, people will eventually gain immunity to the virus. The country has kept restaurants, schools, and gyms open and urged its residents to social distance and wash their hands.

In the US, the Trump administration has refused to set nationwide distancing rules, leading to scattershot lockdown and reopening efforts.

States across the US issued stay-at-home orders in March, and several governors are starting to reopen businesses — which if done too early, could put residents at risk of COVID-19 surges. Some people calling for economic reopenings, as well as anti-vaccine advocates, have pushed for herd immunity as a way out.

But scientists have called it dangerous rhetoric, saying that in the years people would have to wait for herd immunity to be achieved, hundreds of thousands of people could die from COVID-19. And beyond that, it remains unknown if antibodies from COVID-19 even result in long-term immunity.

No country in the world has reached herd immunity to COVID-19

Data suggests that no place has reached herd immunity to the coronavirus — less than 10% of the world has been exposed to the virus, according to estimates.

Experts say herd immunity requires 50 to 70% of the population to be exposed to the virusBusiness Insider's Hilary Brueck reported that without a vaccine, it could take four to five years to reach that point.

coronavirus protest bill gates anti-vaccine
Jason Redmond/AFP

In those four or five years, hundreds of thousands of more people could die from COVID-19. And scientists are still uncertain if a COVID-19 infection even leads to immunity.

As of Friday morning, Sweden, which has a population of 10.23 million, had 29,207 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 3,646 deaths from the virus — a death rate of 35.64 deaths per 100,000 people.

The US, meanwhile, has had 1.45 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and 86,607 deaths from the virus. With a population of 328.2 million, the country has a death rate of 26.3 deaths per 100,000 people.

Health officials have called the concept of herd immunity 'dangerous'

Epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins University have called the concept herd immunity a "dangerous misconception" and said the US remains vulnerable to the virus. The World Health Organization also criticized the idea of herd immunity on Monday.

"This idea that, 'Well, maybe countries who had lax measures and haven't done anything will all of a sudden magically reach some herd immunity, and so what if we lose a few old people along the way?' This is a really dangerous, dangerous calculation," Mike Ryan, WHO's executive director of health emergencies, said.

Sweden coronavirus
People in Stockholm on April 8.
AP Photo/Andres Kudacki

Ryan told reporters that humans "are not herds," and such plans around building immunity would lead to only more death.

"I think we need to be really careful when we use terms in this way around natural infections in humans because it can lead to a very brutal arithmetic which does not put people and life and suffering at the center of that equation," he said.

The creator of Sweden's coronavirus plan even said he isn't convinced it's working

The architect behind Sweden's coronavirus plan even said he wasn't sure if the relaxed approach is working.

"I'm not convinced at all," Anders Tegnell, Sweden's state epidemiologist, told the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet on May 1.

On Tuesday, Sweden even changed one aspect of its COVID-19 strategy, after seeing a high death rate in Swedish nursing homes. Prime Minister Stefan Lofven's office announced it would spend about $220 million (2.2 billion kronor) to help protect elderly people in nursing homes from the novel coronavirus.

sweden coronavirus outdoors
People in Stockholm on April 21.
Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

Sweden and the US are among the 10 countries with the highest numbers of deaths per capita from COVID-19, according to data from Statista. Based on the data, Canada has nearly half the death rate of the US, at 15.1 deaths per 100,000 people.

Sweden is more densely populated than other Nordic countries, but its neighbors' death rates per capita are much lower — Norway has a rate of 4.32 deaths per 100,000 people, and Finland has a rate of 5.2.

Other nations, including Spain and Italy, have higher death rates per capita than the US and Sweden. Both countries have older populations, which affects the death rate, along with other factors, such as testing availability.

Emily Toth Martin, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health told Business Insider reporter Anna Medaris Miller that the only way to gain herd immunity from the virus is through a vaccine.

"This is not just about getting through the current crisis," she added. "If this virus stays around, we need a vaccine to prevent resurgences in future generations."

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