Largest Antarctic station affected by COVID outbreak | Polarjournal
The US station McMurdo on the coast of the Ross Sea is the largest Antarctic station. About 1,300 people live and work here in summer and about 250 – 300 in winter. Thanks to the Phoenix Airfield and a pier, McMurdo is also a logistical hub for many national Antarctic programs. Image: Cody Johnson, USAP/NSF, CC BY-ND-NC 4.0

Although it has now dropped out of most headlines, the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to roam the world. It is precisely those regions and countries that had recorded the fewest cases at the height of the pandemic that are now seeing massive increases in cases. Besides China, which is still pursuing its “zero COVID” strategy, Antarctica is also affected.

Since late last week, the largest station in Antarctica, the U.S. station McMurdo, has been affected by a COVID outbreak. Of the 993 people currently living on the station, 64 are known active cases and 98 positive tests have been recorded since October, the National Science Foundation announced in a news release Nov. 7. Most of the cases are mild, and all of those affected are isolated in their rooms, it states.

In addition to the airfield, McMurdo is also used to offload supply ships from New Zealand and the U.S. plus other countries that have stations in this part of East Antarctica. Image: Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

NSF had already imposed a travel ban to McMurdo Station on November 5, closing the station to flights for the next two weeks. “The administration is working to reduce the density of the population to reduce the possibility of transmission,” NSF wrote in its notice about the reasons for the halt. In addition, a mask recommendation is now in effect for everyone and a 5-day quarantine requirement is in effect for those individuals who must travel toward Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole or undertake field work outside. Individuals who test positive must also be isolated for 5 days, wear masks for an additional five days at any given time, and cannot return to their work sites until they produce two negative test results. Exempt from the travel ban are all trips that must be made for health or safety reasons. NSF, which is responsible for managing the station and the overall U.S. Antarctic program, will provide information on changes to the measures, both relaxations and further restrictions.

Just three kilometers from McMurdo is New Zealand’s Scott Base, which is currently undergoing extensive remodeling and new construction and was recently visited by New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden. Image: Antarctica New Zealand

The COVID outbreak on McMurdo comes at an inopportune time, as most countries running national Antarctic research programs already have their people either on the ground or on the way. And since McMurdo is the main logistical hub for countries such as New Zealand and Italy that have stations in the region around the Ross Sea, the stop not only affects the U.S. Antarctic program but is likely to have delays for those countries as well. Just two weeks ago, New Zealand PM Jacinda Arden visited New Zealand’s Scott Base, just three kilometers from McMurdo, to see for herself the progress of the station’s conversion and New Zealand’s Antarctic research program. All logistical work at Scott Base goes through McMurdo, and although Antarctica New Zealand has not yet released any information, the disruption is also likely to impact its work, especially if the measures are extended. The outbreak is also likely to leave its mark on the tourism sector and make possible ship visits to the station, which are difficult anyway, rather unlikely.

The first COVID outbreak in Antarctica was reported by the Chilean station “Bernardo O’Higgins” on the Antarctic Peninsula in December 2020. Subsequently, outbreaks at the Belgian station and an Argentine station had become known. Image: Sergio Gonzales Alacron, Wikicommons

The outbreak on McMurdo is the largest known outbreak of COVID in Antarctica to date. The first eruption can be attributed to the Chilean base Bernardo O’Higgins on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Here, a total of 36 people were infected with COVID in December 2020 and the entire station had to be evacuated. The station was only reopened after extensive cleaning work. In the meantime, major outbreaks were also recorded at the Belgian station “Princess Elisabeth Antarctica” and at the large Argentinean station Esperanza, where 30 and 24 persons respectively were infected. This was despite the fact that the countries had all made great efforts to prevent the disease from being introduced into Antarctica. This is necessary because none of the stations would have sufficient facilities to adequately treat severe courses of the disease, and evacuations are difficult and lengthy, posing a danger to affected individuals. That is why protection measures are still active in national Antarctic programs. However, the breakout on McMurdo shows how difficult implementation remains.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Contributed image: Cody Johnson, USAP / NSF, CC BY-SA-ND-NC 4.0

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