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Coronavirus reaches Antarctica: three things you should know

A pandemic that has so far recorded close to 78 million cases globally was kept away from one of the most remote places on Earth. All that has changed now

A penguin is pictured near Chile's Bernardo O'Higgins army base area at Antarctica in this undated handout photo provided by the Chilean Army on December 22, 2020. (Photo credit: Chilean Army/Handout via REUTERS)

For the longest time, Antarctica was the last remaining continent free from covid-19. A pandemic that has so far recorded close to 78 million cases globally was still kept away from one of the most remote places on Earth. But all that has changed now as the continent—home to a slew of research stations and bases—recorded its first cases of the novel coronavirus.

Where has the outbreak occurred?

According to a Reuters report, Chile’s armed forces said at least 36 people had been infected at its Bernardo O'Higgins base, including 26 army personnel and 10 civilian contractors conducting maintenance at the base. This permanently staffed research station, operated by Chile's army, lies near the tip of a peninsula in northernmost Antarctica. Base personnel “are already properly isolated and constantly monitored” by health authorities in Magallanes, in Chilean Patagonia, the army said, adding there had so far been no complications, the report added.

Chile's Bernardo O'Higgins army base is seen at Antarctica in this undated handout photo provided by the Chilean Army on December 22, 2020. (Photo credit: Chilean Navy/Handout via REUTERS)
Chile's Bernardo O'Higgins army base is seen at Antarctica in this undated handout photo provided by the Chilean Army on December 22, 2020. (Photo credit: Chilean Navy/Handout via REUTERS)

Antarctica stayed free from an outbreak so far because...

Quite a few stringent measures were put in place to keep the virus out, this included cancelling tourism, scaling back activities and staff and locking down facilities. The continent serves as an important location for scientific research, including studies on wildlife, weather, climate change and astronomy, which cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. According to researchers with the British Antarctic Survey, about 1,000 people at 38 stations across the frozen continent had safely navigated the southern hemisphere winter without an incident. But, the Reuters report adds, an increase in travel to and from the region this spring and early summer had heightened infection risk.

Have any other cases been reported in the region?

So far no other country with a presence in Antarctica has publicly reported any other cases of covid-19, an AP report said. But on Tuesday, the health minister for the Biobio region in Chile said there were 21 infections involving people aboard the Chilean navy's Sargento Aldea supply vessel, which had docked at the Las Estrellas' village, where civilian personnel working at the Lieutenant Rodolfo Marsh Martin Air Force Base live. The AP report said the first three people on the Chilean vessel tested positive last week and all 208 crewmembers are being quarantined aboard that ship, according to the navy.

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