A wilderness region with only 1% of Chile’s population is suffering nearly 20% of the country’s total new Covid-19 cases.
The Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica Region, at the southern tip of South America, has been experiencing an unusually contagious second wave of infections in recent weeks. Hospitals are nearing full occupancy in the hard-hit towns and Chilean health ministry officials say they have begun evacuating sick residents from the rugged and isolated region to the capital, Santiago.
Experts say this unusually high rate of infection suggests that an especially virulent mutation might be at work in the small towns dotted among the glaciers of Patagonia, which have seen cases of Covid-19 spike in September and October following a first wave earlier this year.
“Earlier this week, the number of people testing positive in Magallanes was the same as in the capital, except that Magallanes has the lowest population density in the country, 170,000 versus eight million in Santiago,” said Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman, reporting from the Chilean capital, Santiago.
“Experts say there could be many reasons, including the weather, but they can’t rule out that a new strand of the virus is mainly to blame.”
Marcelo Navarrete of the University of Magallanes in regional capital Punta Arenas told Reuters that researchers had detected “structural changes” in the spikes on the distinctive, crown-shaped virus.
“The only thing we know to date is that this coincides in time and space with a second wave that is quite intense in the region,” he told Reuters. “Some variables such as cold and wind are associated with a higher rate of spread.”
Studies outside Chile have also indicated that the coronavirus can evolve as it adapts to its human hosts.
Scientists say the mutations may make the virus more contagious but do not necessarily make it more deadly, nor would they necessarily inhibit the effectiveness of a potential vaccine.