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Chile's red-hot inoculation drive reaches frozen continent of Antarctica

SANTIAGO, March 17 (Reuters) - Chile’s blazing fast vaccination program has reached the icy shores of Antarctica, officials and researchers told Reuters on Wednesday, bringing a sense of relief to one of the most isolated and vulnerable outposts on Earth.

The pandemic hit Antarctica in December, making it the last of the world’s continents to report an outbreak of COVID-19. Chilean health and army officials scrambled to clear out staff from a remote region with limited medical facilities.

Marcela Andrade, an official with the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH), told Reuters by phone that air force personnel, followed by staff at the Profesor Julio Escudero research base, were inoculated on Sunday with vaccine from China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd.

She said the outbreak scare several months ago was well-managed, but a reminder of the importance of speedy vaccination in such a remote and unforgiving location.

“It’s a relief,” said Andrade, who said workers in the isolated region were at special risk. “We don’t have flights or ships departing every day here. It’s complicated to transport people that (are ill) or a risk to others.”

The base is located on remote King George Island, the largest of the Shetland Islands off the coast of Antarctica. Researchers count as their nearest neighbors several species of seals, penguins and fish-eating sea birds.

Chile has vaulted ahead of much of Latin America, and the world, in its vaccination program, and has inoculated most of its frontline health workers, military and elderly. But a spike in contagions country-wide has brought hospitals to near collapse and forced new restrictions on movement. (Graphic: tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi)

Andrade said Chile’s decision to vaccinate workers in Antarctica was much appreciated, and timely. She said a shift of workers was scheduled to leave for the mainland in mid-April, and would breathe easier with the vaccine in place.

“Looking at the situation in the country, and the world, it’s a total relief to get back to the mainland with a bit of protection,” she said.

Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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