Antarctica was the only continent untouched by the coronavirus pandemic. But now, a Chilean research base has suffered an outbreak, with at least 36 people testing positive for COVID-19 this week — marking a grim milestone in the fight against the virus.
Chile's armed forces told Reuters that 26 army personnel and 10 civilian maintenance workers have been infected at its Base General Bernardo O'Higgins Riquelme. The remote research station, permanently staffed and operated by Chile's army, is surrounded by ocean and icebergs near the tip of a northern Antarctic peninsula.
The army said that all personnel at the base "are already properly isolated and constantly monitored" by health authorities. There have been no complications.
"We know that exposure to extreme weather affects a person's physiology," Magallanes University researcher Christian Nunez told Reuters. "The condition of isolation, the changes in seasonal light with its seasonal sensitivity can also be immuno-suppressive. So, we know that there are several components that may further affect the person to lower their immune system in extreme conditions and especially with the work they do there."
The news comes after Chile's navy announced that three people tested positive on a ship carrying supplies and workers to the base. The navy said that the outbreak likely stemmed from these three cases, which were reported on December 16.
Officials said that all personnel undergoes mandatory 14-day preventative quarantine in Punta Arenas, the capital of Chile's southernmost region, Magallanes. They are also required to present a negative PCR test within a 72-hour window.
"All the countries that carry out science and logistics in the White Continent have implemented strict sanitary measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic," The Chilean Antarctic Institute said earlier this month, ahead of the expedition.
The U.S. National Science Foundation said in a statement to CBS News that it is aware of the reports of positive cases associated with the research station.
"Personnel at U.S. Antarctic Program stations have had no interactions with the Chilean stations in question or the personnel who reside there," a spokesperson said. "NSF remains committed to not exchanging personnel or accepting tourists at USAP stations."
As of Wednesday, Chile has over 589,000 COVID-19 cases and over 16,000 deaths.
Chilean president Sebastián Piñera announced Wednesday that the first 10,000 doses of the Pfizer-BoiNTech vaccine will arrive in the country Thursday. He said that the country is prepared to start an immediate vaccination process, beginning with medical workers.