A Pandemic of the Penguins

BALTIMORE – One of the more intriguing stories to kick-start the new year largely waddled way under the world’s collective radar. No surprise, given that the curious tale originated from wind-swept Antarctica.

As first reported in early January by the Belgian news outlet Le Soir, scientists at the Princess Elisabeth Polar Station – a Belgian-owned research facility – were battling an outbreak of Covid-19. This outbreak began on December 14 amongst members of a team which had arrived at the station a week earlier, after traveling from Belgium through South Africa.

The South Africa layover was a precautionary maneuver designed to keep the virus in check.

“Workers are required to provide a negative test before traveling from Belgium to South Africa. They also have to quarantine in South Africa and test negative before traveling on to Antarctica.” the story said.

Le Soir reported that at least 16 of the 25 workers tested positive for the virus, however subsequent numbers provided by International Polar Foundation (IPF) put the totals at 11 of 33 workers. In either case, even after three of the new arrivals were evacuated, other members of the research team continued to get sick.

“The situation isn’t dramatic,” Joseph Cheek, a project manager for the IPF, told the BBC. “While it has been an inconvenience to have to quarantine certain members of the staff who caught the virus, it hasn’t significantly affected our work at the station overall.”

Le Soir’s report (translated here) stated that the station has two emergency doctors on site, with equipment to treat people who develop severe symptoms, and the ability to analyze PCR tests. Again, the Belgians were doing absolutely everything they could to both dodge and treat the disease.

While the numbers differ, one constant between the Le Soir story and succeeding reports from other outlets is that ALL of the workers at the research station had received at least two shots of the ballyhooed balm. The new arrivals had been tested, quarantined, and re-tested before stepping foot on the frozen field.

So, where did the sneeze that started the spread come from, if not from Belgium or South Africa?

Clearly, this has to be a pandemic of the penguins.

Look, we already know the virus has been found throughout the animal kingdom. 315 animals from 15 species in the United States alone were confirmed to have SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19. I’m told in some states they’re even making hunters bring harvested deer into testing facilities before allowing the sportsmen to take their game home. Hard to blame Rudolph, though, for the ice station outbreak, since there aren’t any reindeer at the South Pole.

Come to think of it, there aren’t any reindeer at the North Pole either!

But Antarctica is awash with penguins – 20 million according to a 2020 survey by Oceanites. And with that many presumably unvaxxed birds slip-sliding about, an outbreak on the continent was bound to happen.

Consider for a moment the penguin’s personality.

Penguins are Witty • Meticulous • Intelligent • Self-conscious • Enigmatic. Just the kind of traits one would expect from a colony that regularly cackles at cockamamie commands. Penguins also tend to huddle in large groups for warmth, so social distancing is completely out of the question. And they’re self-reliant. You’ll never find a penguin sucking down a carton of stimulus sanctioned sardines.

Apply those same traits to astute human beings, and one can almost see accusatory fingers feverishly shaking in an unmasked nation’s face.

(No word yet on if/when N-95 masks will be made to fit flightless bird beaks, since the word on the slopes is that cloth masks are nothing more than “facial decorations.”)

If you’ve gotten this far, you might be inclined to write off this “penguin pandemic” as just one more crazy tin-foil hat conspiracy theory.

Fair enough.

But allow me to add that Princess Elisabeth Polar Station is a zero emission research facility, so you can also dismiss any notion that the recent outbreak is carbon footprint related. (Yep, a carbon cooff – that will be the next boogeyman foisted upon the masses.)

We reached out to the IPF to ask how the stricken workers are presently faring. No official word yet, though a quick look at the station’s Facebook page would seem to indicate that – for the team at Princess Elisabeth – it’s back to business as usual. That’s great news. Perhaps whatever variant they contracted wasn’t so bad after all? But the question remains: How did the fully vaxxed and tested staff at a remote outpost experience even a hint of an outbreak?

If you’re still not convinced the station workers were being extraordinarily careful, consider the press release we’ve copied below and judge for yourself.

So where does that leave us?

Well, if the emerging tracking numbers are correct – and the Princess Elisabeth station is just one example – it leaves us with a protocol that is not only ineffective but may actually be compounding the problem.

Which is par for the snow-covered course.

For nearly two years, we’ve been buffeted by an ever-changing narrative. Trust in vaunted institutions, such as science and medicine, appear to be set on ice.

We have seen our rights steadily whittled away, even as we willingly “complied” for the greater good. We’ve watched family and friends suffer and – in some cases die – while the media mocked alternative treatments that are working in hot spots around the world.

And then there is this wedge that has been driven into society – this ongoing ostracization of anyone who maintains, “This isn’t working.”

The silencing of anyone who says, “Enough is enough.”

Where this polarization will end is anyone’s guess. Just know that taking a contrary stand – like living in Antarctica – can be pretty chilling.

That’s why for some, it will always be easier to blame the penguins.

* * * UPDATE * * *

Joseph Cheek — Project Manager and Science & Communications Officer for the International Polar Foundation told us via email that as of Jan. 14, 2022, all is well at the Princess Elisabeth Station and the afflicted workers have fully recovered. “Ten days after the rotation, no one has tested positive for COVID at the station, so we’re in the clear.” Cheek added: “At this time we’re not going to speculate how the infection may have spread to the crew heading to PEA in December 2021. The minimum amount of time the staff heading to the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica this season spent in quarantine in Cape Town was 10 days. In many cases staff heading to PEA had 14 days of quarantine in Cape Town. Following the outbreak, the minimum amount of quarantine time in Cape Town was put at 14 days.”

Cheek also said,

“The genomic sequencing materials required to determine which variant of COVID was circulating at the station is not available at PEA (and likely not for most stations in Antarctica). We only have PCR tests to determine whether or not someone has COVID. These tests cannot determine which strain appears in a positive sample. However, based on the mild symptoms everyone at the station who tested positive for COVID exhibited (mild fever, sore throat, headache) the station doctor hypothesizes that it may have been the highly infectious Omicron variant that made its way to the station.”

* * * * * *

The International Polar Foundation (IPF) confirms that despite all sanitary measures taken staff members at the Princess Elisabeth Station were infected by the COVID virus in December 2021. The IPF would like to stress that while the COVID outbreak at the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica research station is a situation that it is taking very seriously and monitoring very closely by our medical staff, life and work at the station has not been seriously affected by the outbreak.
Below are the facts the IPF would like to share with the press to clarify the situation:
All residents at the Princess Elisabeth Station have to follow strict sanitary measures before and upon arrival at the station (medical examinations, vaccination, PCR tests, quarantine – see complete list of measures taken at the end of this document).
• December 9, 2021: An inbound flight arrived from Cape Town with crew members and scientists
• December 14, 2021: All crew members and scientists tested after planned COVID test (arrival + 5 days)
• December 15, 2021: A first positive case with mild symptoms was recorded at Princess Elisabeth Antarctica and the person was immediately isolated.
• The individual who had symptoms on the 15th was infected probably around the December 10. And when it was decided that the best thing for this person to do would be to leave on the next flight on December 23 (D07 flight), he did not present (according to the best available information on hand) any substantial risk to others.
• As PEA is a “zero emission” building, people are living in a passive building, which means it has a common ventilation system, similar to a plane. In such an environment the circulation of micro-organisms is inevitable.
• Subsequently, there were 8 positive tests in December. Some had minor symptoms (sore throat generally).  All recovered within a short amount of time.
• The management at the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica offered anyone who so wished the opportunity to leave on a scheduled flight on January 12. However, everyone expressed their wish to stay and continue their work.
• In addition, a new team of scientists will arrive at the station on January 12 as planned. They were also informed of the outbreak and given the opportunity to cancel, which they refused.
• Today: there are currently eight external scientists and 22 station crew working from the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica. Four of the eight external scientists currently at PEA are conducting remote field work.
• At this time the IPF and the Belgian Polar Secretariat is collecting data on the infection trajectory (no cases since December 29 2021), and will not lend support to speculation.
• Fortunately, the COVID outbreak consisted of minor symptoms, if any. The expedition members all remained calm and positive.  We attribute this to the professionalism of the team, who has many years of experience handling challenging situations in extreme environments.
• For those living and working at the station, life goes on normally and the important work of the BELARE (Belgian Antarctic Research Expedition) with regard to science support continues unhindered.
• We are aware that the figure of 16 people at the station testing positive is circulating in some media outlets and on social media. This number is inaccurate and does not reflect the number of individuals who tested positive at Princess Elisabeth Antarctica.
• It is misleading to say that new arrivals to the station have been suspended until January 12. There was no scheduled flight in or out of the station until January 12; none of the flights scheduled has been cancelled or postponed due to COVID. All flights to and from the station are scheduled at the start of the season. The inbound and outbound flights on January 12 are merely flights that had already been scheduled, and these only vary if the weather is not favourable.
Below you may find a complete list of anti-COVID measures required by the 2021-22 Belgian Antarctic Research Expedition (BELARE) and enforced for all residents of Princess Elisabeth Antarctica:
• Prior to departure from their country of origin (there are not only Belgians, but also British, Irish, American, Canadian, German, French, and Swiss nationals at the station) each person is obliged to be fully vaccinated (with the 2nd dose given at least 14 days prior to travel for a two-dose vaccine). One person at the station this season was able to get a booster shot prior to leaving for Antarctica.
• Prior to departure from their country of origin, each person is obliged to undergo a complete physical exam by a doctor to ensure that they are in good physical condition. No one in poor health is allowed to go on missions to the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica.
• Each person must take a PCR test 72 hours before their departure from their country of origin to Cape Town, where they are required to quarantine before heading on to Antarctica. Anyone with a positive PCR test is not allowed to travel to Cape Town.
• Each person must take a PCR Test five days after their arrival in Cape Town (if a person becomes infected on the flight to Cape Town, symptoms would usually manifest themselves by this time).
• Once the quarantine is over, each person must take a PCR test maximum 48 hours before departure from Cape Town to Antarctica. Wearing masks on these flights is mandatory.
• Each person must take a PCR test again five days after their arrival to PEA (again, most infections would usually manifest themselves by this time).
January 04, 2022 – Share on Twitter or FaceBook
Media: © International Polar Foundation

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2 thoughts on “A Pandemic of the Penguins

  • January 23, 2022 at 10:50 PM

    Anyone who has been using the phrase “follow the science” to urge their fellow citizens into playing the government’s game of Simon Says should be reminded that just about everyone who goes to Antarctica is a scientist.

  • January 23, 2022 at 8:07 PM

    Those pesky penguins! What are we gonna do?!

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