Coronavirus concerns are shutting down Arctic events including a major health conference and Arctic Council meetings

In a bit of irony, zoonotic diseases such as the novel coronavirus were a big part of the canceled conference's agenda.

By Yereth Rosen - March 11, 2020
The University of Alaska Fairbanks was to have hosted a major Arctic health conference, but coronavirus concerns have postponed the event indefinitely. (Clare Skelly / NASA / Goddard)

A major conference on circumpolar health has been scuttled by health concerns over the spread of coronavirus, as have several Arctic Council meetings and other Arctic-related events.

The One Health, One Future conference, which was to be held March 11 through 14 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has been postponed to a time yet to be determined.

Meetings of the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Officials and Sustainable Development Working Group, both set to be held in Akureyri, Iceland later this month, have also been postponed indefinitely.

Meanwhile, a major military exercise in Norway, Cold Response 2020, was shut down early.

The One Health conference was organized as part of the U.S. contribution to the Arctic Council’s One Health program, and Arctic Council representatives were scheduled to attend.

Until this week, the conference was deemed safe enough to stage. Most of the approximately 350 attendees were from Alaska, where there had not been a recorded infection from the new coronavirus as of March 10. However, recorded infections elsewhere increased substantially over the weekend, and conference organizers could not guarantee that non-Alaska attendees were traveling from places unaffected by the virus, said Arleigh Reynolds, a professor of veterinary medicine at UAF who serves as director of the university’s Center for One Health Research.

Additionally, some of the scheduled conference participants were Indigenous elders, members of one of the most vulnerable population groups, Reynolds said.

Those factors combined prompted a recommendation from state health officials that the conference be postponed, he said.

The novel coronavirus infection is among the zoonotic diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans, and the study of zoonotic diseases is an important subject for the global One Health program, which is led by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ironically, zoonotic diseases were a prominent part of the canceled Fairbanks conference agenda, and the impact of Arctic climate change on those diseases was a subject of focus. But the event itself could have contributed to the spread of this particular zoonotic disease, Reynolds said.

“One Health is actually geared to preventing these kinds of things,” he said. “To actually cause one of these things would have been a disaster.”

Reynolds said he hopes the conference will be rescheduled, possibly as early as this summer or as late as next spring.

The One Health conference is among several Arctic events that have been postponed or canceled in recent days because of coronavirus risks.

Also postponed is the Arctic Encounter Symposium, which was to have been held in mid-April in Seattle. The lineup for that event featured dignitaries from Iceland, Greenland, Denmark and Norway as well as prominent U.S. and Alaska officials. Organizers said on the website that the symposium will be rescheduled.

The High North Dialogue, due to have been held March 18 and 19 in Bodo, Norway, was canceled in its entirety, however.

The list of canceled, postponed or altered Arctic-related events extends to sports and the arts.

The 2020 Arctic Winter Games, which were to have started this week in Whitehorse, Yukon, were canceled. The biennial event was to have featured teams of young athletes representing Canadian provinces and territories, Greenland, Alaska, the Sami people of Fennoscandia and Russia and the Yamal people of Russia.

“While there are no cases of COVID-19 in Yukon and the risks low, other regions are experiencing unexpected community spread of the virus. With up to 2,000 visitors anticipated to arrive in Whitehorse for the Arctic Winter Games, necessary steps must be taken to ensure the health and safety of Yukoners and visitors to the territory,” the organizing committee said on its website.

Greenland’s Arctic Circle Race, a 160-mile ski event billed as the “world’s toughest cross-country race,” was canceled. Norway has pulled its national cross-country ski team out of scheduled World Cup races in North America, removing some of the world’s top competitors from those contests.

And a screening that was to have been the world premiere of a film about Greenland has been canceled, though the film festival is set to be held as scheduled. The film, “The Fight for Greenland,” was to have been the opening show for the Cph.Dox festival in Copenhagen, a major European event. The festival’s organizers have made some other adjustments, including the cancelation of any associated events expected to have more than 1,000 participants.

Melody Schreiber and Kevin McGwin contributed to this report.