ANTARCTICA – The AstraZeneca Covid vaccine has finally reached the Antarctic, nine months after it was introduced.
This week, it was flown in to immunize the 23 staff members who have been keeping the British Rothera research station operational throughout the polar winter.
The AZ vaccine was delivered to Rothera via a nearly 10,000-mile journey that began with an RAF Voyager flight from Brize Norton and included stops in Senegal and the Falkland Islands.
All the while, the doses had to be kept in a special transport container at the required 2-8 oC storage temperature.
In late December 2020, Antarctica reported its first COVID-19 case and subsequently lost its status as the last continent free of COVID-19 when 36 researchers and military personnel travelled from the UK tested positive at a Chilean research base.
Only a small number of full scientific expeditions to Antarctica have gone ahead since the pandemic began.
The arrival of the AstraZeneca vaccine is a welcomed move to minimize the pandemic’s spread in the internationally administered region.
A first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine has been administered to the station’s scientists, engineers, and support staff by the on-site doctor. The second shot will be administered in four weeks.
Rothera has been essentially shut down since March, when only a core group of staff were retained on the continent to endure the darkness and inclement weather that characterize polar winters.
They’ll now be immune when visitors arrive for the summer research season.
Rothera winter station leader Matthew Phillips said, “…Being able to vaccinate people will help keep the station population and Antarctica Covid-free. This puts us in a great position ahead of a busy summer on station and in the field.”
The far-flung vaccine dispatches were organized by Crown Agents, a non-profit international development organization on behalf of the Foreign Office.
“We’ve been working since March to send the vaccines out, literally to the ends of the Earth,” said Crown Agents’ CEO Fergus Drake.
“And often it’s taken four or five modes of transport to get to some of these places. Getting the vaccine to the Pitcairn Islands and the 47 individuals there necessitated using a longboat because that’s one of the few ways you can land on the islands.”
As part of the South American country’s immunization program, 49 people stationed at a Chilean base in Antarctica received the Covid-19 vaccine in March, and over 50 more received their first dose in the weeks that followed.
To protect the continent, all tourist visits to Antarctica were cancelled, unessential personnel were evacuated and contact between the 40 international bases in the area was prohibited.