In Sweden, shadow of fiasco hangs over new Covid-19 vaccines

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A vaccine developed in a hurry? No more question. Like hundreds of young compatriots, Meissa Chebbi has been narcoleptic since a vast campaign against H1N1 which, eleven years later, eroded the confidence of Swedes in antidotes against Covid-19.

• Read also: Disinformation, a possible pitfall on the vaccine route

“I would never recommend” to take a vaccine developed in emergency, “unless you absolutely have to take it, in danger of death”, told AFP the young Swede of 21 years.

“I’ll wait five years, when we know the risks,” says the student.

In 2009, the local health authorities called on the Swedes to be – voluntarily – vaccinated against swine flu, with Pandemrix produced by the British laboratory GlaxoSmithKline.

More than 60% of the population – nearly six million people – had answered the call, a world record, in a country where no vaccine is however compulsory.

But like Meissa, hundreds of people, mostly children and young adults, have developed narcolepsy from a side effect of the vaccine. In question: an adjuvant whose role was to increase the immune effect.

“It destroyed my life,” says Meissa, who was eleven at the time.

“I fall asleep all the time, in all situations and at inappropriate times: at the table, during job interviews, during speeches, seminars, at university. I fell asleep at work, in buses, everywhere … ”, lists the young resident of Örebro, in central Sweden.

Less than 50% of volunteers

Almost 440 out of 702 complaints were compensated by the Pharmaceutical Insurance Fund, which disbursed a total of 100 million crowns, approximately 10 million euros.

Anders Tegnell, the chief epidemiologist and figure in Sweden’s controversial Covid-19 strategy, was part of the health council’s panel of experts that called for mass vaccination in 2009-2010.

“Of course the decision would have been completely different if we had known the side effects. But they were completely unknown, a surprise for everyone, ”he told AFP.

“There has been an international consensus for years on the fact that vaccination was the best thing to do during a pandemic and that it was the only long-term solution”, pleads the doctor.

The Swedish case illustrates the difficulty of governments in carrying out vaccination campaigns, in a context of doubt or even mistrust in many countries, but also in the face of an urgent need to end a pandemic which is paralyzing the whole world.

For Babis Stefanides, a 36-year-old Stockholmer, it’s clear: she will not take a vaccine against Covid-19. “There are just too many questions,” she says.

According to a recent survey by the Novus Institute, more than a quarter (26%) of Swedes agree and 28% are undecided.

Less than one in two (46%) plan to be injected with one of the new vaccines against Covid-19, promised for early 2021.

“Do not humiliate”

For the director of the Swedish Health Authority, Johan Carlson, 60 to 70% of his compatriots would need to take the antidote to stop the epidemic.

“Everyone has to think carefully and decide. Generally in Sweden, most people are vaccinated, ”he said on television on Sunday.

Even without any compulsory vaccination, Sweden can indeed boast of having voluntary vaccination rates in children that exceed 90%.

Hannah Laine, a 37-year-old social worker, intends to be vaccinated, with her husband but also their three children.

“We have to take our moral responsibility towards the elderly and the sick. We will take it, perhaps not in our interest but in that of society, ”she told AFP.

An argument disputed by Elisabeth Widell, president of the Swedish Association of Narcolepsy.

According to her, the authorities were not wrong to aim for a mass vaccination in 2009, but they have called too much for the sense of solidarity of the Swedes, often anxious to follow official instructions.

“We should not criticize or humiliate people who choose not to be vaccinated. If it is not compulsory, the choice is free, ”argues the association manager.

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