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Coronavirus hits Antarctica

December 23, 2020

Chile has registered 26 coronavirus infections at its General Bernardo O'Higgins Riquelme Antarctic Base. An additional three people tested positive in a vessel that been at the base to bring personnel and supplies.

Chile's Bernardo O'Higgins Base
Chile's Bernardo O'Higgins Base registered 26 coronavirus infectionsImage: Ashley Cooper/Reuters

Chilean authorities announced this week that a coronavirus outbreak had taken place in one of its bases in Antarctica. It marks the first time the virus has reached the remote icy continent. 

Research and military stations in Antarctica had gone to great lengths in to keep the virus out. Tourism had been canceled, activities and staff had been scaled back, while several facilities had been locked down.  

Where was the virus found?

The Chilean navy said it had detected three cases of COVID-19 among 208 crew members of Sargento Aldea ship, which sailed from Chile's southernmost Magallanes region to the Antarctic region between November 27 and December 10. 

The Magallanes region is one of the closest populated areas to Antarctica and take-off point for many boats and planes headed to the continent. But it is also among the hardest-hit by coronavirus in Chile and has been under quarantine restrictions for months. 

The Sargento Aldea ship delivered supplies and personnel to the General Bernardo O'Higgins Riquelme Antarctic Base, where this week, Chile's army confirmed 36 positive COVID-19 infections. This included 26 army personnel and 10 civilian contractors conducting maintenance at the base. 

The ship also touched on Las Estrellas' village, the home of civilian personnel working at a different base, the Lieutenant Rodolfo Marsh Martin Air Force Base. One coronavirus case was also reported at the village. 

How did COVID get to Antarctica?

Chile has said that all base personnel sick with the virus have been evacuated from the continent and "are already properly isolated and constantly monitored" by health authorities in Magallanes, adding there had so far been no complications. 

Throughout the year, some 1,000 people at 38 stations across the frozen continent had safely navigated the southern hemisphere winter without any reported COVID-19 cases, researchers with the British Antarctic Survey said.  

But a rise in travel to and from the region this spring and early summer heightened infection risk. 

Antarctica: Working in the icy wastes

jcg/rt (Reuters, AP)