Coronavirus: The countries where COVID-19 is spreading the fastest

The COVID-19 virus is now spreading faster in Sweden than in the United States and UK.

The Scandinavian nation took a different approach to most countries, deciding against lockdowns and opting for voluntary guidelines rather than rules. While the virus' spread was slowed during the northern hemisphere summer, winter's second wave has hit Sweden hard - with several thousand new cases a day. 

The latest data shows SARS-CoV-2 - the virus which causes COVID-19 - is now spreading faster in Sweden than most other countries on the planet. 

The rolling seven-day average of new cases has risen to 665 per million people, narrowly surpassing the United States' rate of 651.

The UK has recorded 403 new cases per million in the past week, but it's rising fast - the line almost vertical on Our World in Data's interactive graph. The latest single-day figure is 540 new cases per million. A new strain of the virus has been found in the south of the country, which experts suggest could be more infectious than previous strains. 

New Zealand's rate is presently 0.74 cases per million, all of them at the border. 

Sweden's chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell.
Sweden's chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell. Photo credit: Reuters

Sweden has made moves to stem the latest wave, including recommending masks for the first time last week, suggesting businesses limit the number of customers they let in at any one time and - for the first time since the pandemic began - blocked arrivals from its neighbours Denmark and the UK

"The new mutated virus has also been confirmed in Denmark and some other countries," said Home Affairs Minister Mikael Damberg.

"There is an obvious risk that Danes will be tempted to cross over to Sweden to shop for Christmas presents."

According to the University of Oxford Government Response Stringency Index, the restrictions in Sweden - though not enforced - are now in line with those recently in force in the UK, before the Christmas lockdown. New Zealand ranks near the bottom of the list, alongside countries which never bothered to lock down in the first place, such as Nicaragua and Belarus. 

stringency index
Photo credit: Our World in Data

Like many other nations, Sweden's economy was hit hard by the pandemic - even though it didn't have tough restrictions on movement. It fell 8 percent in the June quarter, making up barely half those losses in the September quarter (4.9 percent). While New Zealand's fell more - 12.2 percent in the June quarter - it rebounded hard, up 14 percent in the three months to September.

Our World in Data COVID spread
Photo credit: Our World in Data

While Sweden's unique approach to handling COVID-19 has put it under the spotlight throughout 2020, its present outbreak isn't the fastest-spreading right now - that dubious honour belongs to Lithuania, with more than 1000 cases per million a day over the past week. Lithuania - population 2.8 million - had very few cases earlier this year, but is now recording several-thousand a day. 

At the start of November, Lithuania had recorded just 15,000 cases in total - they're now up to 115,000. 

Other nations where the virus is spreading faster than Sweden are San Marino, Serbia, Luxembourg and Georgia. After Sweden there's Croatia, Slovenia and then the United States. 

Will deaths rise?

Sweden has had 7993 deaths from the virus to date, most back in April and May during the first wave - improved treatment has limited the death toll in the second wave, despite the far greater number of cases being detected. A few dozen deaths are being reported each day now, compared with up to 115 in the first wave.

Denmark has had just over 1000 deaths and Norway 405. 

But as deaths lag behind detection by a few weeks, it remains to be seen just how deadly Sweden's inability to control the virus this winter will be.