Scientists Slam Microwave Concept For “Havana Syndrome”
Miami Herald / Tribune News Service via Getty Images
The staff of the US embassy in Havana left the building on September 29, 2017 after the State Department announced that it would withdraw all but necessary staff from the embassy.
A microwave attack is the “most plausible” explanation for the outbreak of mysterious injuries reported by dozen US diplomats in Cuba three years ago. A long awaited study published over the weekend has been completed.
However, scientists who worked on the National Academies of Science report commissioned by the State Department say the determination of possible microwave attacks is far from conclusive. External experts on microwaves and the mysterious “Havana Syndrome” meanwhile rejected the conclusion as implausible. One scientist called it “science fiction”.
“We say in many ways that the US government needs to be more conscious and comprehensive,” said panel chairman David Relman, an infectious disease expert at Stanford. “What is needed is a nationwide effort to not just study what happened, but to anticipate what the future holds.”
The State Department praised the publication of the report, saying in a statement sent to BuzzFeed News that it “can complement the data and analysis that can help us come to a final conclusion about what happened”. “Among a number of conclusions, the report finds that the ‘constellation of signs and symptoms’ is consistent with the effects of pulsed radio frequency energy. We would like to point out that “in accordance with” is an art term in medicine and science that allows plausibility but does not assign a cause. “
About 35 diplomats reported the mysterious violations from late 2016 onwards, which affected US diplomatic relations with Cuba for much of the Trump administration.
In 2017, the State Department first published concerns about staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana who reported loud noises and symptoms such as earache, headache, and head pressure. Early news reported sonic weapons causing deafness, inner ear damage and concussion syndrome of brain damage – all rejected by the new NAS report – which then State Department head Rex Tillerson called “health attacks” on the US and their diplomats Familys.
Other theories circulated that the mysterious diseases were caused by cricket noises that sparked mass hysteria, or by Russian spies who somehow zapped diplomats. In 2019, the State Department asked the NAS to review the diseases with the limited information available and focus on advising on how to gather medical information for future clusters of cases. The panel met three times in the past year and heard from medical teams who had treated or examined some affected patients. They also reviewed reports from the CDC and NIH, and heard statements from eight patients in closed sessions.
However, according to the report, the panel was hampered by a lack of information about the individuals involved due to security and privacy laws. The medical test data provided were not thorough enough as they were collected to treat patients rather than investigate an outbreak of injury.
“We had no information about individuals, including those first, later and their connections,” said panel member Jeffrey Staab, professor of psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic. Given these limits, the panel focused on the acute, immediate symptoms reported by the diplomats in Havana – loud noises, pressure, vibration, earache and headache – that were the clearest and most informative explanations possible. The report also ruled out recent reports of similar injuries among Canadian tourists and US diplomats in China.
“There are real gaps in the information,” said Staab. “Even if we all had security checks to see everything about everyone, there would be gaps in the information.”
Those same limits narrowed what the scientists could call plausible explanations for the injuries, panel members told BuzzFeed News. A theory that the mysterious illness was caused by an infectious disease like Zika virus was rated as “highly unlikely” and a more recent explanation that the outbreak was caused by pesticide poisoning was rated as “unlikely,” despite the scientists indicated that there were no blood samples left from the patients to thoroughly rule this out.
“Even if we all had security checks to see everything about everyone, there would be gaps in the information.”
The scientists also looked at a third theory that mass psychological disorders were the cause. In this scenario, a group of acute symptoms is followed by a larger number of chronic illnesses – particularly persistent dizziness, difficulty thinking, insomnia, and headaches – that reflect previous outbreaks of injury caused by social contagion. However, according to Staab, the panel could not draw any final conclusions without data about the people and their contacts to map social networks. “The hardest thing is to put the psychological, social explanation aside,” Relman said.
This left a definitive theory that the diseases were caused by “directed radio frequency energy (RF) attack”. Based on a real-life phenomenon called the Frey Effect, where pulsed microwave rays directed at a person’s ears can create clicking sounds that only the target can hear, the panel suggested that a “Frey-like effect” might most plausible “of the explanations is considered.
“It’s a bit dramatic. But first of all, something important and real happened to these people, ”said Relman. “We examined possible mechanisms and found that one was more plausible than the other and was in full agreement with some of the clearest clinical findings.”
The report concluded that a microwave attack afterwards can cause rebalancing and dizziness syndrome, accompanied by depression caused by her injuries. Chronic injuries often have psychological aspects that shouldn’t be classified as real symptoms, said Staub.
Some of the report’s key findings were its recommendations to the State Department on how to thoroughly investigate future clusters, using multidisciplinary experts instead of doctors only familiar with brain injuries. “Whatever happens, we cannot allow it to happen again,” said Staab.
However, experts in both microwaves and group psychology were extremely critical of the report’s conclusions.
“The report does not provide a conclusive argument why microwaves should be involved,” said University of Pennsylvania bio-engineer Kenneth Foster, who first described the mechanism behind the Frey Effect in 1974. The effect requires very high levels of power to produce barely audible noise said, and is not known to cause injury. “Maybe someone bothered to move a large microwave transmitter so staff could hear ‘clicks’, but there are easier ways to harass people,” he said.
“This is not science, but science fiction,” said UCLA neurologist Robert Baloh, co-author of Havana Syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Disease and the Real Story Behind the Secret and Hysteria of the Message. News reports alone, ignored by the panel, paint a picture of diseases that are spreading among patients in ways that are very similar to group psychology outbreaks in the past, Baloh said. “There is a lot of misunderstanding, these symptoms are real, people are really hurt, even among doctors,” he added.
“This is not science, it is science fiction.”
Neuroscientist Mitchell Joseph Valdés Sosa of the Cuba Neuroscience Center said the report was a step in the right direction as it invalidated wilder theories about sonic weapons and brain damage. The findings are similar to a 2018 Cuban Academy of Sciences co-authored report, which indicated that early injuries in a few people were likely transmitted through mass psychology to more people across the diplomatic community. “Of course we do not agree with the detection of high-frequency pulses,” said Sosa. “But this is the first time that US experts have recognized that psychogenic effects could be important.”
He noted that the Cuban hotels and neighborhoods where the microwave attacks allegedly took place are in overcrowded, open spaces, making it unlikely that such a small group would be affected or that the attacks would go unnoticed.
The Cuban Academy of Sciences reached out to the panel to present its polls on the neighborhoods near the places where the injuries were reported, Sosa added. However, they learned that the panel’s contract did not allow consultation with the Cubans.
Neither panel member appears to have much experience with the biological effects of microwaves, which may explain their willingness to believe a Frey-like effect is plausible, said Old Dominion University bio-engineer Andrei Pakhomov, who was skeptical about his four decades of research the area. “There have been many reports of the biological effects of radiofrequency fields. But there are no reliable ones. “
Despite reported suspicions that Russian spies are somehow expanding Soviet-era research into making such a weapon, Pakhomov, a Russian émigré, said the field no longer exists in Russia.
“I know all the people there who could have done something in this area,” he said. “They’re all retired or out of academia.”