Antarc­tica is still free of COVID-19. Can it stay that way?

Arab Times - - SCIENCE -

JO­HAN­NES­BURG, Sept 12, (AP): At this very mo­ment a vast world ex­ists that’s free of the coron­avirus, where peo­ple can min­gle with­out masks and watch the pan­demic un­fold from thou­sands of miles away.

That world is Antarc­tica, the only con­ti­nent with­out COVID-19. Now, as nearly 1,000 sci­en­tists and oth­ers who win­tered over on the ice are see­ing the sun for the first time in weeks or months, a global ef­fort wants to make sure in­com­ing col­leagues don’t bring the virus with them.

From the UK’s Rothera Re­search Sta­tion off the Antarc­tic penin­sula that curls to­ward the tip of South Amer­ica, field guide Rob Tay­lor de­scribed what it’s like in “our safe lit­tle bub­ble”.

In pre-coron­avirus days, longterm iso­la­tion, self-re­liance and psy­cho­log­i­cal strain were the norm for Antarc­tic teams while the rest of the world saw their life as fas­ci­nat­ingly ex­treme. How times have changed. “In gen­eral, the free­doms af­forded to us are more ex­ten­sive than those in the UK at the height of lock­down,” said Tay­lor, who ar­rived in Oc­to­ber and has missed the pan­demic en­tirely. “We can ski, so­cial­ize nor­mally, run, use the gym, all within rea­son.”

Con­nec­tions

Like teams across Antarc­tica, in­clud­ing at the South Pole, Tay­lor and his 26 col­leagues must be pro­fi­cient in all sorts of tasks in a re­mote, com­mu­nal en­vi­ron­ment with lit­tle room for er­ror. They take turns cook­ing, make weather ob­ser­va­tions and “do a lot of sewing,” he said.

Good in­ter­net con­nec­tions mean they’ve watched closely as the pan­demic cir­cled the rest of the planet. Un­til this year, con­ver­sa­tions with in­com­ing col­leagues fo­cused on pre­par­ing the new­com­ers. Now the ad­vice goes both ways.

“I’m sure there’s a lot they can tell us that will help us adapt to the new way of things,” Tay­lor said. “We haven’t had any prac­tice at so­cial dis­tanc­ing yet!”

At New Zealand’s Scott Base, rounds of mini-golf and a film­mak­ing com­pe­ti­tion with other Antarc­tic bases have been high­lights of the South­ern Hemi­sphere’s win­ter, which ended for the Scott team when they spot­ted the sun last Fri­day. It had been away since April.

“I think there’s a lit­tle bit of dis­so­ci­a­tion,” Rory O’Con­nor, a doc­tor and the team’s win­ter leader, said of watch­ing the pan­demic from afar. “You ac­knowl­edge it cere­brally, but I don’t think we have fully

fac­tored in the emo­tional tur­moil it must be caus­ing.”

His fam­ily in the UK still wouldn’t trade places with him. “They can’t un­der­stand why I came down here,” he joked. “Months of dark­ness. Stuck in­side with a small group of peo­ple. Where’s the joy in that?”

O’Con­nor said they will be able to test for the virus once col­leagues start ar­riv­ing as soon as Mon­day, weeks late be­cause a huge storm dumped 20-feet (6-meter) snow­drifts. Any virus case will spark a “red re­sponse level”, he said, with ac­tiv­i­ties stripped down to pro­vid­ing heat­ing, wa­ter, power and food.

While COVID-19 has rat­tled some diplo­matic ties, the 30 coun­tries that make up the Coun­cil of Man­agers of Na­tional Antarc­tic Pro­grams teamed up early to keep the virus out. Of­fi­cials cite unique team­work among the United States, China, Rus­sia and oth­ers that else­where might en­gage in diplo­matic

snip­ing.

As a fright­ened 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.

No more con­tact with tourists,

COMNAP warned. “No cruise ships should be dis­em­bark­ing.” And for Antarc­tic teams lo­cated near each other, “mu­tual visits and so­cial events be­tween sta­tions/fa­cil­i­ties should be ceased.”

Trained

Antarc­tic work­ers have long been trained in hand-wash­ing and “sneeze eti­quette,” but COMNAP slipped in that re­minder, adding, “Don’t touch your face.”

In those hur­ried weeks of fi­nal flights, the US “thank­fully” aug­mented med­i­cal and other sup­plies for win­ter and be­yond it, said Stephanie Short, head of lo­gis­tics for the US Antarc­tic pro­gram.

“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,” she said.

Antarc­tic bases soon slipped into months of iso­la­tion known as win­ter. Now, with the glim­mer of

spring, the next big test has be­gun.

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

The Amer­i­cans’ bub­ble be­gan be­fore leav­ing the US in early Au­gust and con­tin­ues un­til they reach the ice. They’ve been iso­lated in ho­tel rooms well be­yond New Zealand’s 14-day quar­an­tine. Bad weather has de­layed their de­par­ture for weeks. It’s now planned for Mon­day.

“We’re try­ing to do a re­ally good job keep­ing up their spir­its,” said An­thony Ger­man, the US Antarc­tic pro­gram’s chief li­ai­son there.

The US is send­ing a third of its usual sum­mer staff. 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 US pro­gram with the Na­tional Sci­ence Foun­da­tion.

The COVID-19 dis­rup­tions are caus­ing some sad­ness, she said. “In some cases, we’re go­ing to have to have con­tin­gents dig­ging in­stru­ments out of the snow to make sure we can still find it.”

Like other coun­tries, New Zealand will pri­or­i­tize long-term data sets, some be­gun in the 1950s, which mea­sure cli­mate, ozone lev­els, seis­mic ac­tiv­ity and more, said Sarah Wil­liamson, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Antarc­tica New Zealand. It’s send­ing 100 peo­ple to the ice in­stead of 350, she said.

Op­er­a­tions

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.”

Pre­cau­tions ex­tend to the gate­way cities – Cape Town, Christchur­ch, Ho­bart in Aus­tralia, Punta Are­nas in Chile and Ushuaia in Ar­gentina. Each has quar­an­tine and test­ing pro­to­cols for work­ers board­ing planes or ships head­ing south.

Antarc­tica al­ways has its chal­lenges, De­va­nun­than said, but when it comes to COVID-19 and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity as a whole, “I would say this is on the top of the list.”

A few weeks ago at Mc­Murdo Sta­tion, work­ers car­ried out a drill to sim­u­late what the rest of the world knows too well: mask-wear­ing and so­cial dis­tanc­ing. “It will be dif­fi­cult not to run up and hug friends” once they ar­rive, sta­tion man­ager Erin Heard said.

He and the oth­ers will start wear­ing masks two days be­fore the new­com­ers fly in, he said, “to help us get mus­cle mem­ory.” For the masks, the team plun­dered Mc­Murdo’s craft room, stocked with fab­ric, and found de­signs on­line.

As col­leagues ar­rive, Heard will leave Antarc­tica. He once might have planned to thaw out on a beach. Now he’s weigh­ing the new nor­mal. “Do I ask a friend to pick me up? I don’t know if I’m com­fort­able do­ing that,” he said as he imag­ined step­ping off the plane.

“It will be su­per weird, to be hon­est, to be com­ing from what feels like an­other planet.”

Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties said in a state­ment on Satur­day. Rus­sia’s Pres­i­dent is Vladimir Putin. They added that 5,428 peo­ple were dis­charged from hos­pi­tals, rais­ing the num­ber of re­cov­er­ies to 873,535. (KUNA) for in­fec­tious diseases stated that deaths tally up to reach 9,347, while to­tal in­fec­tions amounted 258,480 cases. (KUNA)

969 virus cases in Bel­gium:

To­tal coron­avirus (COVID-19) cases in Bel­gium Satur­day surged to 91,537 with 969 new in­fec­tions re­ported by health au­thor­i­ties. (KUNA) Two more deaths from COVID-19 was re­ported, rais­ing the toll to 9,919. (KUNA)

In this hand­out photo pro­vided by Bri­tish Antarc­tic Sur­vey, car­pen­ter Tom Lam­bert and en­gi­neer Andy Steven­son-Jones climb ice at Hangar Cove, Rothera re­search sta­tion, in Antarc­tica on May 22, 2020. Antarc­tica re­mains the only con­ti­nent with­out COVID-19 and now in Septem­ber 2020, as nearly 1,000 sci­en­tists and oth­ers who win­tered over on the ice are see­ing the sun for the first time in months, a global ef­fort wants to make sure in­com­ing col leagues don’t bring the virus with them. (AP)

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