At least 36 people at a Chilean research station in Antarctica have been found infected with the novel coronavirus. This is the first instance of the virus on the icy, southernmost continent. Chile’s armed forces revealed the cases on Monday, but some of them could have been infected earlier.
Antarctica is uninhabited except for those manning the nearly 60 permanent stations established by several countries, including India, for carrying out scientific research.
Where has the outbreak happened?
The infected people were stationed at the General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme, located on the northernmost tip of Antarctica, facing the southern Chilean coast. All have been evacuated, and put in isolation in Chile.
The infections were possibly passed on by people on board a ship that recently delivered supplies to the research station. Three people were found infected on the ship after it returned to Chile earlier this month; on Tuesday, however, it was revealed there were 21 cases on board.
How far are the Indian stations?
As of now, the Indian contingent in Antarctica is not worried about the virus spreading. The two Indian permanent stations, Maitri and Bharati, are at least 5,000 km away from the Chilean base, according to M Ravichandran, director of the Goa-based National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR) which is the nodal agency for India’s scientific expeditions in Antarctica and the Arctic.
The two Indian stations are themselves separated by almost 3,000 km, Ravichandran said.
“Following the Covid epidemic, an international protocol for working in the Antarctica has been agreed upon. There is practically no interaction amongst scientists of different countries. No one is going to any other country’s research station. The team that is nearest to us is that of Russians, which is about 10 km away. The Chilean station is so far away, there is no chance of any interaction even in normal times,” Ravichandran said.
The Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs, comprising 30 countries, had decided early in the pandemic to cut team sizes and limit the number of people at the stations. All major research projects were halted, tourism was cancelled, and several facilities were shut. The US sent only about a third of its usual staff strength this summer while the British Antarctic Survey said it was scaling back its research.
What precautions is India taking?
The Indian team of about 50, which had arrived in Antarctica in December 2019, is supposed to return now. The new team is preparing to sail for Antarctica in January, and Ravichandran said the big concern right now was to ensure these people remain safe from the virus.
“About 50 people are supposed to leave next month. We are taking all precautions to ensure that none of them gets the disease. All of them are already in Goa now, and have been quarantined in a hotel. They are being tested every five days,” he said.
The team will travel to Antarctica directly from Goa, unlike in normal times, when it travels to South Africa and then boards a ship from Cape Town for the remaining distance.
“Travelling to South Africa would have been difficult. Flight services are disrupted. The team would have been quarantined in South Africa for two weeks. So we decided to travel directly from Goa,” Ravichandran said.
“Precautions are being taken to ensure that no one gets infected during the journey, which will take about a month. The ship will have to refuel once, maybe in Mauritius. People would continue to be tested on board, and if someone tests positive, there are contingency plans to isolate and, if possible, deboard them on the way.”
Has Covid impacted India’s Antarctic programme?
Apart from personnel at the two permanent stations, several Indian researchers head to Antarctica every year for their own projects. Antarctica is extremely conducive to carrying out a variety of experiments, especially those related to weather and climate change, because of its unpolluted environment.
Indian scientists usually head to Antarctica in November or December, and remain there until April. This year no such group could go to Antarctica.