After managing to avoid the pandemic for around nine months, Antarctica has reportedly become the last of the Earth’s seven continents to record COVID-19 infections.
A total of 36 people stationed at Chile’s General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme research base in Antarctica, including 26 members of the Chilean Army and 10 civilian maintenance contractors, recently tested positive for COVID-19, according to multiple Spanish-language reports on Monday.
“Thanks to the timely preventive action,” the Chilean Army said in a statement, according to 24 Horas. “It was possible to relieve said personnel, who, after being subjected to a medical control and the administration of a PCR test… turned out to be positive for COVID-19.”
At least some of the infected individuals were said to have experienced symptoms before testing positive for the virus, according to the Associated Press. All 36 have since been evacuated to the city of Punta Arenas in Southern Chile, where they are reported to be under isolation and in good condition. The station personnel was replaced by a new crew who had been quarantined and tested negative prior to their journey.
The Chilean Navy also reported on Monday, December 21, 2020, that three crew members of a ship that provided logistical support to the Antarctic base had tested positive for the virus after returning from their mission, while the entire crew had tested negative before leaving for the voyage.
It is not clear when officials first learned of the positive tests of the Antarctic crew, although the Punta Arenas newspaper La Prensa Austral reported last week that government officials had said they were “handling information from people who traveled to Antarctica and upon arrival on the continent presented symptoms related to Covid-19 and which were later confirmed with PCR tests.”
It is not clear if any of the cases reported last week are the same as those confirmed to be positive on Monday, although the base typically houses no more than a few dozen people, with a maximum of 60. Medical experts believe that PCR tests are the most reliable way of determining COVID-19 infections, so it would be very unlikely for any significant number of cases to be false positives.
Antarctica has no permanent residents but usually hosts between 1000 to 5000 individuals, largely consisting of scientists and support staff stationed at research bases scattered throughout the continent. Population peaks during the summer months, which run from roughly October to February. The Chilean base, named after a key figure in establishing Chile’s independence from Spain, is one of the oldest to continuously operate on the icy continent, having been established in 1948.
While no cases of the somewhat analogous 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic made it to the Antarctic, the COVID-19 cases reported on the continent Monday mean that no major piece of the planet has escaped the current pandemic. The virus has continued to surge around the globe, with over 77.3 million cases and more than 1.7 million deaths reported as of Monday, according to Johns Hopkins University.