Covid-19 has finally reached Antarctica, making it the last continent to be affected by the pandemic.
Some 36 civilian and army personnel at a Chilean research station on the continent tested positive for coronavirus, according to Chile’s army and health ministry officials in the southern Chilean province of Magallanes.
Chilean officials are investigating how the virus reached the Base General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme, said a spokesman for the Health Ministry in Magallanes, Chile’s southernmost region. He said that so far none of the infected men have had severe symptoms.
The 26 army personnel and 10 civilians, who are contractors for a company doing maintenance at the base, were evacuated to the city of Punta Arenas, where the army’s fifth division said they have been put in isolation and are under “constant monitoring.”
“The Army’s V Division confirms its unconditional commitment to protect the health of its members,” the Chilean army said in a statement Friday. “For the moment there is a favorable diagnosis and no kind of complication associated with Covid-19 in our personnel.”
A Chilean army official in Magallanes said he didn’t know how many people are currently at the base, but said it normally holds 20 or so people.
A spokeswoman for the National Science Foundation, which manages Antarctic scientific research and logistics for the U.S., said American personnel on the continent remain free of the virus. Tourists are prohibited from visiting and staff exchanges with other countries at McMurdo Station, the U.S. outpost on the continent, are on hold.
“Personnel at U.S. Antarctic Program stations have had no interactions with the Chilean stations in question or the personnel who reside there,” said Martha Klinck, of the foundation.
McMurdo’s annual seaborne resupply was canceled this year because of Covid-19 concerns. The U.S. Coast Guard’s heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, which typically undertakes the annual resupply, instead went to the Arctic.
The Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs said they have prepared for the eventuality of an outbreak on the continent, and have also planned how to prevent an intracontinental spread, said Michelle Rogan-Finnemore, the group’s executive director. Nations involved on the continent continue to share Covid response plans and resources, she said.
Thirty countries have national antarctic programs and are members, according to the council. In winter, only about 1,000 people remain on the continent and that number increases in the summer, according to the CIA World Factbook. The Antarctic Treaty, first signed in 1959 and which now has 54 signatories, is an international compact that declares the continent shall be used for peaceful purposes only, with a focus on scientific discovery and that no country will make new claims to sovereignty on the continent.
There have been nearly 78 million registered coronavirus cases during the pandemic so far and more than 1.7 million deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
The Chilean base, a bright red building located on the northwestern tip of Antarctica, was founded in 1948, and has since been used by scientists to conduct research on marine biology, geology and meteorology. It is one of four permanent bases that Chile has on Antarctica.
The navy said last week that the crew on one of its ships had been put into quarantine after developing Covid-19 symptoms following a visit to the remote station in late November and early December. Three of the 208 crew members of the Sargento Aldea ship tested positive for coronavirus as travel to and from the continent increases following the Southern Hemisphere’s winter, the navy said.
The South American nation of 18 million people has been hard hit by the pandemic, reporting some 590,000 cases and over 16,000 deaths. Magallanes has been one of the hardest hit regions in the country.
While the number of new cases has fallen since the peak in June, Chile has seen a rise in new contagions in recent weeks, prompting the government to reinstate a lockdown in Santiago this month. It also banned travel from the U.K. following reports of a new strain of the virus.
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