The coronavirus reaches the last continent that was free: Chile confirms 36 cases in Antarctica

Until December 21, Antarctica was the only continent that the coronavirus had not reached, the last frontier to the pandemic. But it has already passed through. Chile has reported an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Bernardo O “Higgins Riquelme base, after 36 people tested positive for COVID-19.

Of the 36 confirmed positives, 26 are Chilean military and the other ten are civilian contractors who were carrying out maintenance work at the base, according to a statement from the Chilean Army picked up by news agencies. They were subjected to the test after showing symptoms of the new virus.

They are “isolated” in Punta Arenas, a city in southern Chile, where they are being “constantly monitored with the support of the health authority of the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctic Region.”

The Chilean Army adds that so far its diagnosis is favorable “without any complications associated with COVID-19.”

What is still unclear is how exactly they were infected, since neither the national media, nor the press release of the Chilean Army, specify how the new virus arrived in Antarctica.

The Bernardo O’Higgins base was built in 1948 and bears the name of a key figure in the establishment of the country’s independence, it is the second Chilean base established in Antarctica and provides constant support to all kinds of scientific research.

Its location is remote. It is located at the northernmost tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, a difficult-to-access area far from the Australian bases located east of Antarctica.

However, there is a German base in the area, GARS O’Higgins. Euronews has contacted the German Aerospace Center (DLR) that runs the station and is awaiting comment.

How could the virus get to Antarctica?

The infections are confirmed a few days after the visit to the base of the ship “Sargento Aldea” of the Chilean Navy and three of its more than 200 crew members tested positive. The hypothesis that the Chilean press is considering is that this could have been the origin of the contagion.

This is a chronology of the events reported by the Chilean Army:

  • The Chilean navy ship “Sargento Aldea” leaves Punto Arenas on November 27 to go to Antarctica with more than 200 crew members. All people undergo a PCR test and all tested negative.
  • The ship remains in Antarctica until December 10, after which it returns to the Chilean port of Punto Arenas.
  • At Punto Arenas, part of the crew disembarks on December 10. Two of them test positive on December 14.
  • December 16: All those still on board undergo a PCR test and the ship implements a preventive quarantine at its port of origin in Talcahuano.
  • Meanwhile, several people at the Antarctic base report having symptoms of COVID-19; 36 of them test positive.
  • On December 21, the Chilean Army published a press release notifying the cases at the Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme base.
  • The research station is evacuated and disinfected. Those who test positive are quarantined at Punto Arenas.

Chile, one of the epicenters of the coronavirus

The frozen continent was shielded from tourism in March and where there are almost fifty international bases, it comes as Chile prepares for an eventual second wave after Christmas.

With 589,189 total cases in nine months and 1,699 deaths, Chile went through the peak of the pandemic in June, becoming one of the countries with the most daily infections in the world.

The capital, Santiago, in which more than 7 million people live, will spend the Christmas and New Year holidays in quarantine after a 15% increase in the number of new infections daily in the last two weeks.