Base General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme is a permanently staffed Chilean research station in Antarctica. It is one of four permanent bases that Chile has in the Antarctic. It is operated by the Chilean army. Antarctica is the last of the seven continents to report cases of the coronavirus. Authorities confirmed 36 positive cases of COVID-19 on Monday.
Scientific research being conducted on the continent has been scaled back due to the pandemic and travel restrictions. Scheduled maintenance was being performed in this area. The positive cases come from 26 Army personnel and 10 civilians from a contractor company. The news came just days after Chile’s navy confirmed three cases on a ship that had taken supplies and personnel to the research station. The virus was brought into the research station.
The Seremi de Salud de Magallanes, Eduardo Castillo, reported that the traceability processes and the respective isolations of the affected people are already being carried out in the region. Both the Army and the maintenance company personnel were transferred to the sanitary residences located in Punta Arenas.
“The Chilean Army, on the 60 PCR samples analyzed in Punta Arenas from people from O’Higgins Base who arrived in the regional capital during the weekend, 36 people, including civilians and military personnel, have tested positive for coronavirus, who are carrying out isolation in sanitary residences in Punta Arenas ”, said Castillo.
Sadly #Antarctica is no longer free of COVID-19! The Chilean army today reported 36 personnel at O’Higgins Base have tested positive (26 military and 10 civilians); the station has been undergoing the annual exchange of personnel over the last few weeks; pic @Base_OHiggins pic.twitter.com/OKtjqQQ4Om
— The Antarctic Report (@AntarcticReport) December 22, 2020
The first instinct is to question if proper mitigation measures were taken to protect whoever is maintaining the research center. Chile’s navy claims that those men on the ship were tested and their results were negative. Chile is the sixth worst-affected country in Latin America.
The Sargento Aldea arrived at the research station on 27 November and sailed back to Chile on 10 December.
Three of its crew tested positive upon their return to the Chilean naval base in Talcahuano.
Chile’s navy said all of those who had embarked on the trip to the Antarctic had been given PCR tests and all the results had been negative.
The British Antarctic Survey announced last August that it was scaling back its research efforts due to the coronavirus pandemic. At that time, it announced that only essential teams would go back to Antarctica as it emerged from winter, and all research in the deep field had been postponed for a year. It simply didn’t have the capacity to treat the virus should scientists become ill. International partners agreed upon strict procedures to be put in place to keep the coronavirus out. Most people going to Antarctica travel by plane. UK scientists and technicians decided to travel directly from Britain to Antarctica by research ship. The restrictions put in place resulted in the suspension of the vast majority of its deep-field projects.
Tourism in Antarctica has been canceled because of the pandemic. Staff and activities have been scaled back and facilities have been locked down. The safety measures have been in place for months.
Researchers with the British Antarctic Survey estimate about 1,000 people at 38 stations across the frozen continent had safely navigated the southern hemisphere winter without incident. But an uptick in travel to and from the region this spring and early summer have heightened infection risk.
Antarctica is the most isolated of the seven continents but an estimated 5,000 scientists and researchers live in Antarctica in the summer and about 1,000 in winter. There are 70 permanent research stations scattered across the continent. The Bernardo O’Higgins base is near the tip of a peninsula in northernmost Antarctica. It overlooks a bay often dotted with icebergs.