Combatting an elusive coronavirus with patience

State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell stood in the centre of events when the novel coronavirus started to spread around the globe. He is one of the Alumni of the Year for 2020.

 

 

This is the place he returns to. Photo credit Anna Nilsen

Surrounded by grazing and open fields, the large garden and the buildings painted in traditional “falu red”, this is where Anders Tegnell looks forward to clearing his head after intense days working at the Public Health Agency of Sweden. As state epidemiologist, he has been firmly in the centre of events since the first reports came in of a novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, towards the end of 2019.

“Each new infectious disease has its own characteristics, of course, but this one has given us many surprises. It behaves differently and has other properties than what we initially believed.”

One example is the extremely uneven way in which the virus spreads.

“Some people seem not to spread the virus at all, while others seem to have infected hundreds of other people. I don’t think I know of any other infectious disease that is so extreme in this respect.” Photo credit Anna Nilsen

As state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell has given situation reports and answered questions both about the spread of the virus and Sweden’s strategy to manage the pandemic. The citation for the Alumnus of the Year award states: “His endurance, calmness and objective approach has given security to many Swedes in a time of uncertainty”.

“I have been convinced for many years that communication is extremely important for success when working with public health. It’s vital to ensure that true communication takes place, not just a flow of information. What I mean is that you really have to listen and determine what those you are communicating with need to know.”

During the conversation, Anders Tegnell often emphasises three vital concepts: breadth, entirety and collaboration. His ability to deal with the broad picture is one of the properties that he sees as a strength in his work.

“I’m often able to find an unconventional approach. I’m pretty good at rapidly mastering knowledge from several sources and seeing the entire picture: ‘Something’s missing here, but not here’.”

He adds with a laugh: “And patience is, as we know, a virtue.”

“It’s great to experience different cultures”

An interest in international exchange runs as a common thread through Anders Tegnell’s life. Maybe he wouldn’t be where he is today if his father’s work had not taken the family to Ethiopia while Anders was growing up. He points out that the period spent in a different type of environment may have helped him to think in a broader perspective.

“Maybe you develop slightly different ambitions for the future when you’ve lived abroad in this way. The whole thing with international work, that it’s great to experience different cultures and try different things.” Photo credit Anna Nilsen

The idea of studying medicine arose to a certain extent by chance. An interest in international work had by that time become established, and the medical profession seemed to be in demand in many parts of the world. And it was interesting. After qualifying as a doctor in Lund, he worked at the clinic for infectious diseases in Linköping, where one of the projects he worked on was the design of the hospital’s high-security containment facility. His work as infectious diseases specialist at Linköping University Hospital led him into research and doctoral studies at university. He remembers his time as LiU as extremely exciting.

“I had varied work, and the opportunity to really get to grips with a subject and examine it from different angles.”

During his period in doctoral studies, he developed an approach that has later helped him in his professional life.

“A way of evaluating scientific studies and weighing them against each other. It’s dangerous to look at only one or a few studies: you must see the broad picture at all times. That’s exactly what I learnt then – to gain an overview and see where a field of knowledge in its entirety is heading.”

Collaboration to meet challenges

The breadth of the medical profession has led him to exciting contacts in many other areas. In Sweden, he has worked at the National Board of Health and Welfare and the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control, while his international career has included WHO and the European Commission. International work with public health has given him insight into how an issue can be managed in many different ways. There is more than one correct way of doing things. And he regards collaboration across national borders as probably the most important tool to manage not only the challenges we are facing today, but also those of the future.

“This pandemic has shown more clearly than ever before how extremely important it is that we can work together from different countries, learn from each other and develop together. This is something I would like to come back to and work with – improving international collaboration.”

The challenge here is to understand how similar, and at the same time how different, people are. What can we take with us from Sweden and successfully use in other countries? What is not going to work? What ideas can we take from other countries and use successfully in Sweden?

“Many of the deeper aspects of communication and culture are involved here, the parts that are difficult to master. It is, however, extremely exciting when you manage it.”

What does Anders Tegnell hope will be his legacy when he eventually moves on from his current professional life?

“We are extremely good at working with several aspects of public health in Sweden, but we have to accept that public health is a field where we need many different professional groups and many different types of work. These must work together to make life better for the population in its entirety. It would be great if we could move in that direction and put public health slightly more in focus here in Sweden.”

Translated by George Farrants

Photo credit Anna Nilsen

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