Antarctica: Measures to Address Coronavirus Pandemic

By Joe Godbold

Joe Godbold


Furthering our UK-Arctic Coronavirus Observatory, we are now compiling all of the relevant, up-to-date COVID-19 information pertaining to Antarctica, and the countries which have bases within, related news, so you can have the information readily available to suit your need.


First published: 20 March 2020
Last updated: 19 January 2022

Antarctica

Antarctica remained the last continent not to have recorded an outbreak of COVID-19 until 58 people were infected on 21 December 2020. The site of the outbreak was the Chilean military base, Base General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme (in continental Antarctica), and on board the navy ship ‘Sargento Aldea’. The general risks of COVID-19 to research are apparent in the summer season as the population in the Arctic increases due to regular flights to gateway cities for personnel and supplies, alongside internal flights within the continent as scientists travel between stations and the concentration of tourists at coastal sites. Research programmes have taken measures to prevent the spread of the virus in Antarctic, while there has been no public reference to the possible effects of the virus on the fauna of the place:

  • Argentina: Argentina has six permanent bases in its Antarctic territories and took extensive measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 including tasks of disinfection, reduction of cargo flights and restriction of contact with base personnel from other countries. For example, aircraft crews unload the packages on the runway so that the base crew does not have contact with anyone from the outside. For tourists, travel to Argentina is off-limits, while nationals and permanent residents wishing to travel must present a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours before departure. stay. (See here). As of 15 December 2021, Argentina’s Petrel Base in Antarctica will be reopened permanently, due to its location and strategic importance.
  • Australia: In February 2021, the Australian Antarctic Division cancelled a number of flights to its Wilkins Aerodrome, and prevented tourists from visiting the research station at Macquarie Island. However, this summer there will be 10 Airbus A319 and six C17-A cargo flights to Australia’s Wilkins Aerodrome this summer, with the first flight scheduled in November. The 2021-2022 summer season will see about 500 expeditioners travel south to undertake research or support our scientists as part of the Australian Antarctic Program. This includes transporting 800 tonnes of equipment and machinery to Casey research station. Australia’s new icebreaker RSV Nuyina is fully prepared for a COVID-19 outbreak with a state-of-the art PCR testing system for COVID which has a turnaround time of 40-50 minutes from patient to result. The ship’s medical facility has an emergency room, operating theatre, X-ray machine, consulting room and a 2 bed ward, all with telemedicine links, situated on the same level as the helideck for ease of patient transport. More information can be found here. Australia’s new icebreaker ship RSV Nuyina has finally launched from Hobart, 16 December 2021. Australia’s Covid-19 vaccination drive has reached Antarctica, allowing expeditioners to be inoculated. (See here). The aforementioned Nuyina Icebreaker has reached Antarctica on its first voyage south, carrying with it booster shots for expeditioners based there, 08 January 2022. A positive Covid-19 test for a participant due to travel has led to Australia’s national science agency cancelling the voyage of its flagship research vessel, 10 January 2022.
  • Chile: Chilean nationals were the first nation to contract COVID-19 in the Antarctic in December 2020. At least 36 people, including 10 civilians and 26 officers of the Chilean Army and Chilean Navy, were confirmed as positive for COVID-19 after contracting the virus on the Base General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme (in continental Antarctica), where they were doing scheduled maintenance work for the base. The people developed symptoms for COVID-19 aboard the Sargento Aldea ship, and most of the cases were treated after arriving to their destinations in Punta Arenas and Talcahuano. On 18 March 2021, the Chilean Air Force announced they inoculated 49 members of their staff in Antarctica, being the first country to start vaccinating against COVID-19 in the continent. Restrictions to Antarctica are related to domestic Chile border policy. Entry to Chile has been restricted since July 2021, unless a Special Entry Permit (‘Salvoconducto’) is issued by a Chilean Consulate to grant entry. Those permitted are subjected to a 7-day quarantine period and are required to provide proof of a negative PCR test taken 72 hours before departure, complete a health form and have travel insurance to cover the cost of covid-related health care, up to $30,000.
  • Belgium: The Belgian Antarctic research post, Princess Elisabeth Polar Station, is battling a coronavirus outbreak, with at least 16 of its 25 strong work force testing positive, 29 December 2022. It is believed the virus was first brought to the station following team members travelling from South Africa, with the first case identified on 14 December 2021. While the original infected workers were evacuated on 23 December 2021, to attempt to quell the rise in infections, more workers have continued to become ill with the disease. The facility has prohibited further arrivals until the outbreak has stopped.
  • China: China has built four Antarctic stations in 30 years since joining the Antarctic Treaty in 1983, and has a fifth station, near the Ross Sea, that will become operable in 2022. China is expanding its fishing operations in the Antarctic with the largest Antarctic krill-fishing boat in the world to be completed by 2023, allowing it to access a krill-oil market that is expected to be worth more than $400 million by 2025. Since the outbreak of Coronavirus, the Chinese expedition is under orders to not visit neighbouring teams, to protect Chinese members and limit potential of spreading, 05 January 2021.
  • Falkland Islands: Local authorities have put in place measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Visitor permits will no longer be granted, although there are exemptions for returning residents, those with work permits and military personnel. The exemption list for visitor permits has recently been expanded to include public diplomacy guests and scientists and researchers who are supported by the Falkland Islands Government. These visitors will still be subject to the same quarantine requirements that apply to all other visitors; they must complete a 10-day quarantine upon arrival (there is a test to release scheme on Day-5 or Day-8 depending on vaccination status). There have only been 69 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the Island, with no active cases. More information can be found here.
  • France: In June 2021, France organized the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting but due to the global health crisis, all of the delegations were not able to travel to Paris in June and so, the Meeting was held by videoconference. The French Polar Institute Paul-Emile Victor (IPEV) plays a central role in France’s action in Antarctic and is responsible for selecting, coordinating, supporting and implementing French scientific projects in Antarctica and ensures the operation of two stations in Antarctica: the French Dumont d’Urville Station and the Concordia Research Station. The missions were disrupted in 2020/2021 season but plans are in place to increase the number of staff at the bases for the upcoming season.
  • India: The National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research is the body responsible for India’s actions in the Antarctic and operates two permanent bases on the continent. The country’s 39th Antarctic expedition was put on hold in 2020 due to COVID-19 as 28 scientists were stuck in Cape Town, South Africa in quarantine. A fresh Indian team of scientists have reached Antarctica to study climate and greenhouse gases, following a period of quarantine in Cape Town, 16 Nov 2021.
  • New Zealand: The first cohort of Scott Base staff flew out of Christchurch on 24 September 2021 for Antarctica – marking the start of New Zealand’s 2021/22 summer season. These staff members are essential to running Scott Base safely and the organisation has gone to great lengths to ensure they arrive in Antarctica COVID-19 free by adding a two-week isolation period and multiple COVID-19 tests to Antarctic pre-deployment. Antarctica New Zealand has organised accommodation in Canterbury to ensure all people flying south are completely isolated before travel. Once at Scott Base, there is a carefully planned system every time a new cohort arrives. This means masks and physical distancing are the new norm on base. This summer Scott Base staff will work in Antarctica for the next five months, while twelve staff will stay on throughout winter until October 2022. Due to COVID-19, fewer people will travel south this season compared with ‘normal’ years. Researchers begin to arrive next month, allowing New Zealand’s world-leading climate change science to continue on the ice. Updates can be found here. Antarctica is the last COVID-19 free place on Earth, a critical challenge to ensure the stations based there remain ice supplied , maintained and safe, and to keep the science on track. The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also secured a number of rooms for people within the territory over the coming months (See here). New Zealand is spending ~$1 million to keep its Scott Base facility in Antarctica Covid-19 free, by building isolation spots. (See here). Jon Ager is the new lead of the redevelopment efforts for Scott Base, 19 January 2022.
  • Norway: The Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) operates a weather station at Troll Research Station in Antarctica, in collaboration with the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. In running Troll Station, the NPI has many commitments to consider in the context of an ongoing global pandemic. In terms of changing personnel at the station, travels by airplane and ship will take place under the guidance of Tromsø municipality’s top infection control officer, Trond Brattland, and the Infection Control Centre at UNN. Quarantining will be undertaken in accordance with recommendations from infection control experts, and special measures will be followed to minimize the risk of infection all along the way. 
  • Russia: Despite COVID-19, Russia is expanding its presence in the region with Russia’s state-run geological surveyor, Rosgeologia, reporting that it had already begun its first seismic survey in the area in more than 20 years. While other countries scale back their operations in the Antarctic due to the pandemic in 2020, one of the Russian navy’s research vessels, the Admiral Vladimirsky, arrived on the continent in May of that year to locate the South Magnetic Pole’s current point. 
  • United Kingdom: The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has screened scientists and visitors to their research stations prior to departure, with those showing symptoms asked to isolate for 14 days prior to departure and visitors are being strongly encouraged to get fully vaccinated before visiting due to the limited healthcare facilities in the Antarctic. Travellers returning to the UK from the British Antarctic Territory are required to follow the rules for a ‘green’ list country; a Day-2 test for fully vaccinated persons or a Day-2 and Day-8 test plus 10 day quarantine for unvaccinated persons. The BAS is continuing its strategic partnership with the Falkland Islands and will be transiting over 200 staff through the Falkland Islands over the 2021/22 season, as regular logistics routes through South America remain disrupted due to Covid-19. On the 7th of October, 2021, 23 Scientists at the British Antarctic Survey Research Station were delivered and vaccinated with the AstraZeneca Covi-19 vaccine, flown more than 9,000 mile – the furthest South any vaccine from the UK has travelled. See more here.
  • United States: United States Antarctic Program (USAP) policy does not currently require deployers to be vaccinated against COVID-19; testing and quarantine protocols enacted last year to ensure the virus is not transported to our stations will continue. The number of deployers that will be permitted into the United States’ Antarctic gateways will once again be significantly curtailed due to ongoing border restrictions. The stricter Physical Qualification guidelines instituted previously will remain in force to protect those severely at risk from COVID-19, and any vaccination information a deployer wishes to provide to our medical team will be appropriately considered. More information can be found here. As of 14 Nov 2021, America’s only heavy coast guard icebreaker is heading back to Antarctica, following last year’s Covid-19 induced detour.

Joe Godbold is a Global Leadership Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. He is part of the PRPI team behind the UK-Arctic Coronavirus Observatory, and serves as the lead for Canada and Antarctica.
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