Coronavirus pandemic hits largest Arctic expedition as scientist tests positive despite showing no symptoms

The team member who contracted the virus works on the airborne component of the expedition and had not yet joined the mission in the Arctic. Before being allowed onboard the ship, researchers will now be tested twice


                            Coronavirus pandemic hits largest Arctic expedition as scientist tests positive despite showing no symptoms
(Getty Images)

When scientists embarked on the largest polar expedition in history, they knew to work on a research vessel that has been intentionally frozen in Arctic sea ice, will be challenging. What they did not expect was a pandemic impacting the expedition.

A researcher, who is part of the expedition called MOSAiC — Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate — has tested positive for the new coronavirus. This has delayed planned aerial survey campaigns to take measurements from the air.

"The survey flights, focusing on the atmosphere and sea ice, were to be carried out in four sub-campaigns from March to September. The two research planes Polar 5 and Polar 6 were originally scheduled to reach Svalbard on March 11," says a statement from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), which is leading the project.

"After a participating researcher tested positive for corona last week, the start of the campaign had to be pushed back. In light of the current situation, the sub-campaigns planned for spring will no longer be possible," the statement added.

MOSAiC is the first year-round expedition into the central Arctic exploring the Arctic climate system and is being touted as the largest Arctic research expedition ever. The backbone of MOSAiC is the year-round operation of GRV Polarstern, drifting with the sea ice across the central Arctic during the years 2019 to 2020. 

In September 2019, the German research icebreaker Polarstern set sail from Tromsø, Norway, to spend a year drifting through the Arctic Ocean -- trapped in ice. A total of five icebreakers, several research planes, and more than 600 researchers and crew members will be taking part in the major Arctic project.

The goal of the MOSAiC expedition is to take the closest look ever at the Arctic as the epicenter of global warming. The idea is to gain "fundamental insights" that will allow scientists to better predict future changes in the Arctic sea ice and the global climate.

"The highly unusual situation at the moment leaves us no choice. We’d like to thank everyone who was involved in the months of preparation, and who did everything within their power, up to the last minute, to make the flight campaigns a reality," says Dr Andreas Herber from AWI, in the statement.

According to Herber, coordinator of the MOSAiC airborne campaigns, the AWI will closely monitor the situation over the next several weeks and explore alternative solutions, for example, extending the two sub-campaigns scheduled for the summer.

MOSAiC in numbers (Source: mosaic-expedition.org)

According to Nature, the team member who contracted the virus works on the airborne component of the expedition and had not yet joined the mission in the Arctic. The researcher had attended a pre-expedition workshop in Bremerhaven, Germany, on March 5 with other team members.

"About 20 members of the aircraft team who had been in contact with the person are now quarantined in their homes under the direction of the German health agencies," says the article. 

"The team member who tested positive was not showing symptoms — he had apparently already recovered from a mild infection that he likely contracted on a visit to Italy — but German authorities asked all of the people at the session, including key flight engineers, to stay in home quarantine for 2 weeks, until 18 March," reports Science.

The delay in planned projects is also due to measures announced by the Norwegian government on March 12  to fight the spread of COVID-19. Effective immediately, all travelers to Norway from non-Nordic countries — who do not have a residence permit — will most likely have to leave the country again or be placed in quarantine for 14 days.

"In response, and due to the highly dynamic development of the corona pandemic, on Friday, March 13, the MOSAiC project management decided to temporarily suspend the aerial survey campaigns planned for this spring and based in the Svalbard archipelago, which is under Norwegian administration. There are currently three icebreakers underway in the Central Arctic for the MOSAiC expedition," says AWI.

Meanwhile, the MOSAiC expedition continues on board the icebreaker Polarstern. The scientists are hoping that the planned crew exchange by airplane in early April might still be possible.

However, both the project management and participants are preparing for the additional challenges the pandemic may entail. "For example, Norway's quarantine policy will most likely remain in effect in April, which means participating researchers will need to allow a great deal of time prior to the fourth leg of the expedition. All participants have been requested to use the utmost caution to avoid infection," says the AWI statement.

Researchers to be tested twice for COVID-19

According to the new rules, before being allowed on board the ship, researchers will be tested for coronavirus twice. They will be first tested before leaving their point of origin, to avoid spreading the virus by travel.

The second test will take place at the expedition’s point of departure, to minimize the risk of introducing the virus among the expedition team. The expedition is also closely collaborating with the health authorities of the countries involved. 

"Further, Polarstern is equipped with a quarantine ward, in the event that, despite all precautions, there is an infection on board," says the statement.

The researchers will be first tested before leaving their point of origin, to avoid spreading the virus by travel. The second test will take place at the expedition’s point of departure, to minimize the risk of introducing the virus among the expedition team (Getty Images)

The MOSAiC expedition is being extra careful after major coronavirus outbreaks were reported on cruise liners — the Diamond Princess, which was quarantined off Japan, and the Grand Princess, which was quarantined off California.

"We've rapidly responded to the pandemic with a comprehensive safety concept and strict medical-diagnostic profile, to reduce the risks for all expedition participants to a minimum. The spreading wave of infections poses an immense challenge for this international expedition. Our safety concept represents a commensurate response to the current situation," says MOSAiC Expedition Leader Prof Markus Rex from the AWI. 

Rex adds, "That being said, no one can predict how that situation will change over the next few months; therefore, we will continually reassess and update the concept as needed. For the time being, we have to 'navigate by sight' and focus on finding the safest and most sensible course for the logistical operations at hand."

Disclaimer : This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.