Scientists Criticize Microwave Theory for ‘Havana Syndrome’

Miami Herald / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Workers at the U.S. Embassy in Havana leave the building on September 29, 2017, after the State Department announced it was removing all non-essential personnel from the embassy.

A microwave attack is the “most plausible” explanation for an epidemic of mysterious injuries that dozens of US diplomats in Cuba reported three years ago, a long-awaited study released over the weekend concluded. end.

But the scientists who collaborated on the Report of the National Academies of Sciences, commissioned by the US State Department, say findings on possible microwave attacks are far from conclusive. Outside experts on microwaves and the mysterious “Havana Syndrome”, meanwhile, dismissed it as implausible. A scientist nicknamed it “science fiction”.

“In many ways what we’re saying is that the US government needs to tackle this in a more deliberate and comprehensive manner,” said group chairman David Relman, an infectious disease expert at Stanford. “What is needed is a whole-of-government effort not only to study what happened, but to anticipate what the future holds.”

The State Department welcomed the publication, saying in a statement released to BuzzFeed News that the report “may add data and analysis that can help us come to a possible conclusion on what happened.”

The statement added, “Among a number of findings, the report notes that the ‘constellation of signs and symptoms’ is consistent with the effects of pulsed radio frequency energy. We note that “consistent with” is a term of art in medicine and science that allows plausibility but does not attribute a cause. “

About 35 diplomats reported the mysterious injuries from late 2016, marring U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba for much of the Trump administration.

In 2017, the State Department first made public its concerns about staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana who reported hearing loud noises and then experiencing symptoms such as pain in their ears, headache and pressure to the head. Early press reports cited sonic weapons as the cause, causing deafness, inner ear damage, and concussion-like brain injury syndrome – all dismissed by the new NAS report – that Rex Tillerson, then chief of the State Department, called “health attacksOn diplomats and their families.

Other theories circulated suggesting that the mysterious diseases were caused by cricket sounds triggering mass hysteria or Russian spies sort of zap diplomats. In 2019, the State Department asked the NAS to review diseases with the limited information available and with a focus on how to collect medical information for any future cluster of cases. The panel has met three times over the past year, listening to medical teams who have treated or examined some affected patients; he also reviewed reports from the CDC and the National Institutes of Health and heard testimony from eight patients in closed sessions.

But the panel was hampered by a lack of information on those involved, according to the report, due to security and medical privacy laws. The medical test data provided was not comprehensive enough, as it was collected to help treat patients rather than to investigate an outbreak of injury.

“We didn’t have information on individual people, including who was affected first, who was affected later, what their relationships were,” said Jeffrey Staab, professor of psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic. Given these limitations, the panel focused on the acute and immediate symptoms reported among diplomats in Havana – loud sounds, pressure, vibrations, ear pain and headaches – as the most distinctive and informative on possible explanations. The committee also ruled out recent reports of similar injuries to Canadian tourists and US diplomats in China.

“There are real information gaps,” Staab said. “Even if we had all the security clearances to see everything on everyone, there would be holes in the information.”

Those same limits limited what scientists could say were plausible explanations for the injuries, panel members told BuzzFeed News. A theory that the mysterious disease was caused by an infectious disease, such as the Zika virus, was deemed “highly unlikely” – and a more recent explanation that the outbreak was caused by pesticide poisoning was deemed ” unlikely, ”although the scientists pointed out that there was no blood sample left from the patients to rule it out completely.

“Even if we had all the security clearances to see everything on everyone, there would be holes in the information.”

Scientists also considered a third theory that mass psychological illness was the cause. In this scenario, a cluster of acute symptoms is followed by a greater number of chronic illnesses – including persistent dizziness, difficulty thinking, insomnia, and headaches – reflecting past outbreaks of injury spread by the disease. social contagion. However, without data on individuals and their contacts to map social media, Staab said, the panel couldn’t draw a definitive conclusion. “The hardest thing to put aside is the psychological and social explanation,” Relman said.

This left a final theory that the diseases were caused by an “attack directed by radio frequency energy.” Based on an actual phenomenon called the “Frey Effect,” where pulsed microwave beams directed at a person’s ears could produce clicking sounds that only the targeted person could hear, the panel suggested that a “Frey-type effect” was the “most plausible”. explanations envisaged.

“It’s a bit dramatic. But first of all, something big and real has happened to these people, ”said Relman. “We looked at the possible mechanisms and found that one was more plausible than the others and fully consistent with some of the more distinct clinical findings.”

The report concluded that a microwave attack could cause compensatory balance and subsequent dizziness syndrome, accompanied by depression triggered by their injuries. Chronic injuries often have psychological aspects that shouldn’t be considered real symptoms, Staab said.

Some of the report’s most important findings were its recommendations to the State Department on how to thoroughly study future groups, with experts from many disciplines instead of mere physicians familiar with brain damage. “Whatever happens, we can’t let this happen again,” Staab said.

However, microwave and group psychology experts sharply criticized the report’s findings.

“The report does not present a coherent argument as to why microwaves should be involved,” said Kenneth Foster, a bioengineer from the University of Pennsylvania, who first described the mechanism behind the effect. Frey in 1974. The effect requires very high power levels to produce barely audible sounds, he said, and it’s not known to cause injury. “Maybe someone went to the trouble of carrying around a big microwave transmitter to get employees to hear ‘clicks’, but there are easier ways to harass people than that,” he said. he declared.

“It’s not science but science fiction,” said UCLA neurologist Robert Baloh, co-author of Havana Syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind Embassy Mystery and Hysteria. The reports alone, not considered by the panel, paint a picture of diseases that are spreading among patients in a way that closely resembles past group psychology epidemics, Baloh said. “There is a lot of misunderstanding that these symptoms are real, people are really hurt, even among doctors,” he added.

“It’s not science, it’s science fiction.”

Neuroscientist Mitchell Joseph Valdés Sosa of the Cuba Neuroscience Center said the report was a step in the right direction as it invalidates wilder theories of sonic weapons and brain damage. The results look like a Cuban Academy of Sciences Report 2018, co-authored by Sosa, which suggested that early injuries in a few people likely spread through mass psychology to more people across the diplomatic community. “We don’t agree with the discovery of radiofrequency pulses, of course,” Sosa said, “but this is the first time that American experts have recognized that the psychogenic effects could be significant.”

He noted that Cuban hotels and neighborhoods where the microwave attacks are said to have taken place are in open and crowded spaces, making it unlikely that such a small group would be affected or that the attacks could go unnoticed.

The Cuban Academy of Sciences has contacted the panel to present its investigations into nearby neighborhoods where injuries have been reported, Sosa added. But it was said that the panel’s contract did not allow Cubans to be consulted.

None of the panelists appear to have much experience with the biological effects of microwaves, which could explain their willingness to consider a Frey-like effect plausible, said Andrei Pakhomov, a bioengineer at Old Dominion University. , who said he was skeptical based on his four decades of research. in the zone. “There are many reports on the biological effects of radiofrequency fields, but there are no reliable ones.

Despite the reported suspicions with Russian spies somehow relying on Soviet-era research to create such a weapon, Pakhomov, a Russian emigrant, said the domain was now extinct in Russia.

“I know all the people out there who could have done something in this area,” he said. “They are all retired or out of science.”

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