The United States National Science Foundation (NSF) has been forced to stop inbound travel to the McMurdo Base in Antarctica following a COVID-19 outbreak that has gripped nearly 10% of the staff, it was reported late Thursday, although essential arrivals and departures for health and safety reasons will still be allowed.
The presence of SARS-CoV-2 at the largest research base on the continent will halt travel for no less than two weeks, the authorities said.
The U.S. National Science Foundation's priority is always the health and safety of our communities while ensuring the overall science mission can be achieved, the NSF explained in a statement.
Management is moving to lower the density of the population to reduce the possibility of transmission. As plans are confirmed and due to the quickly changing situation, NSF will be posting updates, it added.
Some 1,000 researchers work at McMurdo station carrying out studies on aeronomy, astrophysics and geospace sciences, biology and ecosystems, geology and geophysics, glaciology, geomorphology, ice cores, and ocean and climate systems, among other issues.
NSF researchers have been advised to wear KN95 masks at all times at McMurdo, where a total of 98 cases have been confirmed among 993 people stationed on McMurdo, with 64 of them still active.
The outbreak comes as stations are gearing up for their maximum-capacity summer field season, as many bases in Antarctica were trying to resume full activity after two years of lockdowns and restrictions due to the pandemic.
The Covid outbreak is not Antarctica’s first but it seems appears to be the largest so far.
In December 2020, 36 positive cases were reported at Chile's General Bernardo O'Higgins base, 26 of them among Chilean army personnel and the other 10 being civilians. A year later, 11 of the 30 people stationed at Belgium's Princess Elisabeth tested positive, and in January 2022, Argentina’s Esperanza Base also detected 24 infections.
Of the 64 active cases, “most have mild symptoms and are isolating in their rooms”, the NSF said. Those testing positive will be required to isolate for five days, then wait for another five days before being able to return to work after two negative tests.
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