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COVID in Antarctica: What do we know about the cases and how it got there?

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n this Jan. 20, 2015, file photo, wooden arrows show the distances to various cities on King George Island, Antarctica.
n this Jan. 20, 2015, file photo, wooden arrows show the distances to various cities on King George Island, Antarctica.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File
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Nearly a year after the first cluster of COVID-19 cases were first officially reported China, the pandemic has reached Antarctica.

Until December 21, the world's southernmost continent had not reported a single case of COVID-19 but 36 have now been confirmed at the General Bernardo O'Higgins base, a Chilean research station,

The Chilean Army said in a statement that 26 of those who tested positive are military personnel while the remaining 10 are civilian contractors. All were carrying out maintenance work at the base.

It is unclear how these people were infected and whether the disease has spread to other research facilities on the continent.

Euronews has reached out to the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) that runs an outpost at O'Higgins but had not received a response at the time of publication.

Here's a timeline of events:

Here's how events unfolded based on reports from Spanish and Chilean media.

  • The Chilean navy vessel LSDH-91 Sargento Aldea left Punto Arenas in late November to head to Antarctica with more than 200 crew. Everyone on the ship underwent a PCR test and they all came back negative.
  • The LSDH-91 Sargento Aldea stayed in Antarctica until December 10, at which point it left to return to Punto Arenas.
  • In Punto Arenas, part of the crew disembarked, two of them tested positive on December 14.
  • On December 16, every crew member still on board underwent another PCR test and a quarantine was imposed as a preventative measure in its homeport of Talcahuano.
  • Meanwhile, several people at the Antarctica base developed symptoms of COVID-19 and 36 test positive.
  • The Chilean military published a press release on December 21 notifying the public about the cases in O'Higgins.
  • The research station was evacuated and disinfected. Those who tested positive were put in quarantine in Punto Arenas.

How the virus got to Antarctica

"My guess — and it is merely that — is that the original infection occurred in Chile prior to departure, or aboard a ship or aircraft during transit to the station, " Artic specialist Alan Hemmings told Euronews.

"Once there is a single person infected at the station, close quarters and proximity would presumably favour its wider dissemination," he added.

The continent has no settled inhabitants but up to 1,000 scientists staff the 38 research stations during its winter season.

What impact might the virus have on the continent?

Even before cases were confirmed on the continent, many nations had "already drastically scaled back their science plans for the 2020-21 field season", according to a research paper published last month in the Antarctic Science journal.

This could lead to remote scientific instruments being at risk of burial from snow accumulation.

"As climate change continues, our understanding of its increasingly dramatic impacts will be held back if crucial monitorial work is interrupted," the paper notes.

Hemmings told Euronews that "some activity is now underway around the continent."

"National Antarctic programmes have been quarantining staff and scientists before their departure," he explained.

The continent is also increasingly a touristic destination with a record 74,401 people visiting in the 2019-2020 summer (from October to February).

The pandemic brought the season to an earlier end than expected as Chile and Argentina, though which most polar tourists transit, restricted access from March and April. Reaching the Antarctic could remain tricky for anyone wanting to experience the Midnight Sun.

"I think that Antarctic tourism will not occur this Antarctic summer. Aside from the risks aboard the ships, and not being welcomed at scientific stations, there are significant problems getting vessels, crews and passengers to the departure ports in the first place, due to international travel constraints and border control," Hemmings added.