Antarctica: Earth's last Covid-free continent seeks to keep coronavirus at bay

Teams in Antarctica are fighting to keep it Earth's last coronavirus-free continent. Credit: British Antarctic Survey

The only continent on Earth without any Covid-19 cases, Antarctica, is doing all it can to ensure the deadly virus does not infect any of the hundreds of scientists currently based there.

Nearly 30 million people have been infected with coronavirus in 188 countries, but the icy world at Earth's South Pole has remained a "safe little bubble", according to one of the British scientists based there.

In pre-coronavirus days, long-term isolation, self-reliance and psychological strain were the norm for Antarctic teams, while the rest of the world saw their life as fascinatingly extreme.

But now, as millions around the world adjust to a 'new normal' involving face masks and social distancing, nearly 1,000 scientists and others working there have been able to enjoy months of comparatively free life.

“In general, the freedoms afforded to us are more extensive than those in the UK at the height of lockdown,” said Rob Taylor, who is based at Britain's Rothera Research Station off the Antarctic peninsula that curls toward the tip of South America.

“We can ski, socialise normally, run, use the gym, all within reason.”

The scientist completely missed the pandemic, having arrived in October.

There are almost 1,000 people stationed on Antarctica. Credit: British Antarctic Survey

The 30 countries that make up the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP) teamed up early on in the pandemic to ensure no infections caused work to stall.

As the world was locking down in March, the Antarctic programs agreed the pandemic could become a major disaster.

With the world’s strongest winds and coldest temperatures, the continent roughly the size of the United States and Mexico is already dangerous for workers at 40 year-round bases.

“A highly infectious novel virus with significant mortality and morbidity in the extreme and austere environment of Antarctica with limited sophistication of medical care and public health responses is High Risk with potential catastrophic consequences,” according to a COMNAP document seen by The Associated Press.

Since Antarctica can only be reached through a few air gateways or via ship, “the attempt to prevent the virus from reaching the continent should be undertaken IMMEDIATELY,” it said.

The Council said there should be no more contact with tourists and “mutual visits and social events between stations/facilities should be ceased.”

“We re-planned an entire research season in a matter of weeks, facing the highest level of uncertainty I’ve seen in my 25-year government career,” said Stephanie Short, head of logistics for the U.S. Antarctic program.

Now, as sunlight returns to Antarctica for the first time in months and more colleagues head there to work, teams are keen to keep the virus at bay.

Each country based there is sending fewer people to the ice for the summer, COMNAP executive secretary Michelle Finnemore said.

In the gateway city of Christchurch, New Zealand, Operation Deep Freeze is preparing to airlift some 120 people to the largest U.S. station, McMurdo.

30 countries make up the numbers on Antartica. Credit: British Antarctic Survey

To limit contact between Antarctic workers and flight crew, the plane contains a separate toilet mounted on a pallet.

The American social bubble began before leaving the US in early August and continues until they reach the ice.

The US is sending a third of its usual summer staff in a bid to reduce the risk of coronavirus arriving there.

Research will be affected, though investment in robotics and instrumentation that can transmit data from the field will help greatly, said Alexandra Isern, head of Antarctic sciences for the U.S. program with the National Science Foundation.

Some programs are deferring Antarctic operations to next year or even 2022, said Nish Devanunthan, South Africa’s director of Antarctic support.

“I think the biggest concern for every country is to be the one that is fingered for bringing the virus,” he said. “Everyone is safeguarding against that.”