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Many countries have attempted to mitigate and control COVID-19 through non-pharmaceutical interventions, particularly with the aim of reducing population movement and contact. However, it remains unclear how the different control strategies impacted the local phylodynamics of the causative SARS-CoV-2 virus.


We aimed to assess the duration of chains of virus transmission within individual countries and the extent to which countries exported viruses to their geographical neighbours.


We analysed complete SARS-CoV-2 genomes to infer the relative frequencies of virus importation and exportation, as well as virus transmission dynamics, in countries of northern Europe. We examined virus evolution and phylodynamics in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.


The Nordic countries differed markedly in the invasiveness of control strategies, which we found reflected in transmission chain dynamics. For example, Sweden, which compared with the other Nordic countries relied more on recommendation-based rather than legislation-based mitigation interventions, had transmission chains that were more numerous and tended to have more cases. This trend increased over the first 8 months of 2020. Together with Denmark, Sweden was a net exporter of SARS-CoV-2. Norway and Finland implemented legislation-based interventions; their transmission chain dynamics were in stark contrast to their neighbouring country Sweden.


Sweden constituted an epidemiological and evolutionary refugium that enabled the virus to maintain active transmission and spread to other geographical locations. Our analysis reveals the utility of genomic surveillance where monitoring of active transmission chains is a key metric.


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