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How the coronavirus reached Antarctica, Covid-19’s final frontier

. Jan 08, 2021
Antarctica Chile Chile's Bernardo O'Higgins research station. Photo: Stone Monki/CC BY 3.0

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic, upgrading it from a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Since, the coronavirus has infected more than 85 million people across six continents, killing more than 1.8 million. But it was only in December that the virus finally spread to all corners of the planet.

On December 21, the Chilean Army reported that ten civilians and 26 military officials working at the country’s Bernardo O’Higgins base in Antarctica had tested positive for Covid-19, making them the first official cases on the frozen continent.

</p> <p>According to the report, the infections were confirmed days after three crew members on a ship carrying supplies to the Chilean research station had tested positive. Despite presenting symptoms, the trio set sail from the Talcahuano naval base, south of Chile&#8217;s central zone, on December 15.</p> <p>Chilean Navy <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/05/04/amid-pandemic-brazilian-armed-forces-condemn-radicalism/">authorities</a> insisted that their entire contingent tested negative before travelling to Antarctica, where the military provides logistical support for the Bernardo O&#8217;Higgins base. After news of infections in Antarctica, officials said that 208 crew members on the amphibious transport ship Sargento Aldea have been placed on preventive quarantine. The individuals infected with Covid-19 at the Chilean base have been &#8220;properly isolated&#8221; and no complications have been reported so far.</p> <p>However, uncertainty remains about exactly how the virus will behave on the frozen continents.</p> <h2>Antarctica: fighting Covid-19 below zero</h2> <p>A study published by the Oxford University’s Center for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) suggested that Sars-CoV-2 spreads faster in cold, dry weather. In Antarctica, average temperatures are between -35 and -60 degrees Celsius.&nbsp;</p> <p>That said, the South Pole is among the easiest places in the world to practice social distancing. Even during the summer months, only 4,000 people live on the continent — a total that drops to just 1,000 during the winter. In many regards, people working on Antarctica&#8217;s 66 scientific bases are socially isolated by default.</p> <p>Brazil has its own <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2020/01/15/explaining-brazil-91-antarctica-brazil-icy-amazon/">16-person crew</a> on the continent, working at the <a href="https://brazilian.report/tech/2020/01/14/antarctica-brazil-inaugurates-state-of-the-art-reaserch-base/">brand-new Comandante Ferraz Base</a>, reopened in January 2020 after a fire destroyed the old station in 2012.</p> <p>According to Lieutenant Commander Newman Alexander Vetorazzo, of the Brazilian Navy, the delegation&#8217;s first move after the WHO declared the Covid-19 pandemic was to reduce activities in the country&#8217;s Antarctic Operation. Only essential work is being carried out, and no researchers are currently operating in the field, with three study projects being carried out remotely. </p> <iframe src="https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/6HwyAjjpmsolxkZLezxppH" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>Additionally, Lt. Cdr. Vetorazzo told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> that protocols for arriving in Antarctica have been beefed up, with nations taking extreme care to avoid potential outbreaks. Chile&#8217;s recent case, meanwhile, stands as a breach in protective measures.</p> <p>“Before embarking on Brazilian Navy ships, everyone is submitted to rapid serological and RT-PCR tests, with the support of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation medical research institute. Those who test negative quarantine for 14 days on-board the ship, while positive tests quarantine at home. If they test positive again after that, they do not embark,&#8221; he explains.</p> <p>The outbreak at the Bernardo O&#8217;Higgins base has concerned Brazilian authorities, but strict measures are already in place should one of the Brazilian delegation test positive on Antarctica.</p> <p>“If, even after taking all security measures, an infected person still appears, he or she will be immediately isolated in a nursery attached to the Brazilian Antarctic base, prepared and equipped with all the materials needed for treatment and stabilization. After that, we start the evacuation as soon as possible to Brazil. Our operation has two doctors and two nurses.”

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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