The largest outbreak of Covid-19 in Antarctica has infected 10% of individuals in its largest station, and the United States has also suspended all domestic flights.
The infection engulfed the US-operated McMurdo station, the largest base in Antarctica. The National Science Foundation said it had recorded 98 positive tests since the beginning of October out of a total population of 993.
The institution was “moving to reduce the density of the population to reduce the possibility of transmission” and implemented a temporary pause of all flights to the continent for the next two weeks to “reassess the situation”.
The outbreak comes as stations prepare for the maximum capacity summer field season, with many scientists traveling to conduct two to three months of research. For a number of bases, this year saw the first full Antarctic research season after two years of Covid-19 disruption. It is not yet clear what effect the travel break will have on research projects.
The Covid outbreak is not the first of its kind in Antarctica, but it appears to be the largest. In December 2020 The first cases were detected, with 36 people who tested positive for the virus at the Chilean base. A year later it infected 11 of the 30 people at the Belgian research station Princess Elisabeth, and in January 2022, 24 cases were detected in an outbreak at the Argentine base of Esperenza.
Of the 64 active cases, the NSF said, “most have mild symptoms and are being isolated in their rooms.” In an effort to contain the breakout and prevent further spread, the NSF will require residents to spend five days in isolation before moving to the Antarctic or the deep field, and recommend that KN-95 masks be worn at all times.
Those who test positive will be required to isolate for five days, then hide for an additional five days, and can return to work after two negative tests.
In March, as the world shut down in response to the rapid spread of Covid, Antarctic programs agreed that the epidemic could become a major disaster. With the world’s strongest winds and coldest temperatures, a continent roughly the size of the United States and Mexico poses a hazard to workers on its 40 year-round bases.
According to a document from the Board of Directors of National Antarctic Programs, seen by The Associated Press: “It is a novel, highly contagious virus with significant mortality and morbidity in the harsh and extreme environment of Antarctica with limited development in medical care and public health responses at a high risk with potentially catastrophic consequences.”
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