As the coronavirus crisis rages on, the disease has now possibly spread to the Arctic. An ice-locked Arctic research expedition has been halted due to a team member on the project testing positive for the virus.
The mission, called MOSAiC, which stands for Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, has been stuck in ice since last October. While you’d think literally being isolated on the rocks might protect you from a pandemic, the rotating group of scientists found that is not so. The German research vessel, called Polarstern, is monitoring the ice, atmosphere, and marine conditions of this part of the Arctic to further understanding of how the climate crisis is affecting this rapidly changing part of the world.
Of the MOSAiC team, 20 had contact with the affected patient and are now in quarantine. The project has been delayed while the team waits to find out if the illness has been transmitted to other members. The original affected researcher had not yet joined the vessel and was working on the airborne section of the project, a role that is now being carried out via scientific aircraft to gather data on the atmosphere surrounding the Polarstern vessel.
To reduce the chances of further pathogen spread, the project has been paused and new researchers set to join the vessel are being tested for the illness before arriving from Svalbard, Norway.
The project is of heightened concern owing to the fact that life on a research ship is especially cozy. Coronavirus is known to infect a patient for five days before symptoms show, meaning identifying yourself or others as a risk based on your physical condition alone is difficult.
An on-board pathogen spread has been demonstrated in two major outbreaks that affected cruise ships. Both the Diamond Princess and the Grand Princess were brought to a standstill after infected guests stepped on board. Both were quarantined in Japan and California respectively, and saw a mass spread among passengers before guests were released.
Coronavirus, which has now been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, causes devastating lung injury to the worst affected patients. While it's thought many will only suffer minor symptoms, for the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions it can be deadly. Adequate testing is an essential part of the war on the illness, as by identifying and appropriately quarantining affected individuals, we can slow the spread of the disease to support already strained healthcare systems.