There’s only one continent on earth that hasn’t had a single case of COVID-19

is there coronavirus in antarctica
Photo via Christopher Michel/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • Nine months into the pandemic, Antarctica finally suffered its first case
  • Thirty-six cases were announced on Dec. 20
  • Research projects are being put on hold

For the first nine months of the pandemic, only one continent on Earth hadn’t experienced a single case of COVID-19. Which leads to the question: Is there coronavirus in Antarctica? The answer was a resounding no. Until December when the continent reported 36 coronavirus cases

The chilly location is typically home to a diverse range of research teams from all over the world. About 1,000 people have lived there during the winter. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues raging, however, many teams have been forced to put their research on hold. This stagnation could mean bad news for the immensely important climate change research performed across the icy continent.

In a normal year, Antarctica’s busiest season would be happening now. Between October and February, the far southern continent sees thousands of scientists relocating to dozens of bases stretched across the remote landscape. Many of these bases are separated by hundreds of miles, and most are not within easy access of medical facilities. Concerns over bringing the virus to Antarctica stem, in large part, from this lack of access to medical care. Plus, it’d be difficult to evacuate somebody who actually got sick and experienced major symptoms.

On top of the struggle for access, a few other key factors put Antarctica in a potentially dangerous position. There is no way to properly isolate when you are already isolated from the world, which means that a single case could quickly explode into a base-wide outbreak. Scientists traveling to Antarctica are also forced to stop for layovers on their way south, many in areas with high numbers of coronavirus infections. This increases the risk that they might bring the virus with them.

Due to the risk and the potential for life-threatening repercussions of coronavirus in Antarctica, many countries are being forced to cancel their field research for the year. The U.S., New Zealand, and the U.K. have put their expeditions on hold, which could impact the research their scientists have been dedicated to for years.

As the Guardian noted, “no senior British scientist will have embarked on a mission to the continent this year for the first time in decades.”

Reporters have also been forced to cancel expeditions aimed at informing the public about the impact of climate change.

But those who are already on the continent need to be given new supplies from time to time, and crews have to be replaced at some point. That’s where Operation Deep Freeze comes into play, as members of the Air Force have to travel to Antarctica, after quarantining in New Zealand first, to give supplies and equipment to members of the National Science Foundation (interestingly, New Zealand reaps nearly $150 million per year for allowing personnel to travel through the country en route to and from Antarctica).

At the same time, though, research being done in Antarctica is trying to determine if and why Vitamin D could help the body’s immune response to the coronavirus.

To potentially complicate matters, Princess Cruises announced in August that it would restart its sailings to Antarctica in December 2021 and January 2022. But the Hurtigruten cruise line out of Norway has canceled its Antarctic cruises from January-March 2021 because of a lack of international travelers.

While the rest of the world struggles to get their infection numbers under control, Antarctica still has an enviable batting average. In an effort to keep their numbers low, scientists and researchers are practicing the same measures the rest of the globe is. They are social distancing, maintaining good hygiene, and, upon arrival on the continent, quarantining for 14 days. 

There is some good news during the pandemic: Antarctica has received its first Little Free Library. “Books with photos of colorful trees, warm deserts, water, beaches, wheat fields, and animals and birds are popular at the South Pole,” Dr. Russell Schnell, who shipped the piece of equipment from his own in Colorado, said. “Everything else is white for hundreds of miles in all directions.”

Despite the remote location, those living in Antarctica are a little less restricted than the rest of the world (they don’t even have to wear masks).

“In general, the freedoms afforded to us are more extensive than those in the U.K. at the height of lockdown,” field guide Rob Taylor told the Associated Press in September. “We can ski, socialize normally, run, use the gym, all within reason.”

Or as Karin Jansdotter, a chef on research base, wrote in a first-person account for Metro, “I can’t tell you how happy I am to be in the middle of Antarctica right now, thousands of miles from the ‘real world.'”

Read more on traveling during the pandemic:

Sources: Science Mag, BBC, National Geographic, Pulitzer Center, Associated Press

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