A MYSTERIOUS ILLNESS is afflicting American and Canadian diplomats, spies and embassy staff all over the world. Over 200 people have reported symptoms that are baffling doctors. First identified in Cuba, cases have since popped up in Australia, Austria, Colombia, Russia and Uzbekistan. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that two more American officials, this time stationed in Germany, had suffered too, the first time the symptoms have been reported in a NATO country. What might be causing “Havana syndrome”?
In late 2016 in Havana, Cuba’s capital, several CIA officers working at the American embassy described the sensation of pressure in their heads and the sound of what sounded like a swarm of cicadas. They suffered from nausea and fatigue and had trouble remembering things. They also complained of ear pain and hearing loss. Later, brain scans revealed tissue damage similar to that caused by a car accident or a bomb blast. America’s government was spooked, withdrawing more than half its embassy staff in the city. Could the Cubans be using a mysterious new weapon?
Initially, American officials pointed the finger at sonic weapons, devices that use sound to disturb and disorient. But this theory was scrapped because sound waves at frequencies outside of the range of human hearing cannot cause concussion-like symptoms. Next they considered microwaves. A report published last year by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) concluded that microwave beams could alter brain function without causing “gross structural damage”, explaining many of the symptoms. In 2019, another report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) came to a similar conclusion. According to the NASEM report, Russia has worked with microwave technology since the 1950s; the Soviet Union used to blast them at the American embassy in Moscow.
Other experts on microwaves, however, are more circumspect. Jeffrey Staab, a professor of psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic who was on the NASEM panel, has said that there was too little information on the sufferers to draw a conclusion. And although scientists have long been aware that microwave beams directed at a person’s head can make them hear clicking sounds, a phenomenon called the Frey effect, it is not known to cause injuries. Kenneth Foster, the scientist who first described the mechanism behind the effect, thinks the microwave link “defies credibility”.
Some propose a third explanation, which neither of the panels from NASEM and JAMA could rule out: mass psychogenic illness. This can occur when people in a group perceive the same symptoms, despite no external cause. Its supporters believe that there is no underlying disease, even though the symptoms are real and distressing. The extreme stress of living under round-the-clock surveillance in Cuba, which had only just restored diplomatic ties with America in 2015, may have contributed.
Although nearly one-third of individuals reported hearing loss from the attacks in Cuba, a standard test found that loss actually occurred in just two out of 21 people—both of whom suffered before the events in Cuba. Brain scans showed changes to white matter (the tissue that makes up around 60% of the brain) in three out of 21 patients, which is not unusual for a group of normal test subjects of that sample size. “When you take away these severe symptoms, this is what doctors see in their offices every day,” says Robert Baloh, a neurologist who devised some of the tests used to assess the affected diplomats.
In political and scientific circles, the theory of an attack continues to hold water. On August 6th American officials, including the Director of National Intelligence and the bosses of the CIA and the FBI, met to discuss the progress of investigations into the syndrome. Several of President Joe Biden’s advisers have said that they believe the CIA will eventually trace Havana syndrome (referred to by the administration as “anomalous health incidents”) to Russia. But some worry that politics are getting in the way of scientific fact. No matter whether the syndrome is being caused by a secret weapon, or is psychogenic, the symptoms are real and often agonising for those affected.