Scientists erase microwave theory for “Havana syndrome”

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Miami Herald / Tribune news service via Getty Images

Workers at the U.S. embassy in Havana left the building on September 29, 2017, after the State Department announced it would remove all non-essential staff from the embassy.

A microwave attack is the “most plausible” explanation for an outbreak of mysterious wounds reported by dozens of U.S. diplomats in Cuba three years ago, a long-awaited study released over the weekend concluded.

But the scientists who collaborated in the Report of the National Academies of Sciences, commissioned by the U.S. State Department, state that the finding about possible microwave attacks is far from conclusive. Meanwhile, external experts on microwaves and the mysterious “Havana syndrome” dismissed it as unlikely. One scientist called it “science fiction.”

“In many ways, what we’re saying is that the U.S. government needs to take this on in a more deliberate and comprehensive way,” said panel chairman David Relman, an expert on infectious diseases at Stanford. “What is needed is a government-wide effort not only to study what happened, but to anticipate our future.”

The State Department praised the publication, stating in a statement posted to BuzzFeed News that the report “can be added to the data and analysis that can help us reach a final conclusion about what happened.”

The statement adds: “Among several conclusions, the report notes that the ‘constellation of signs and symptoms’ is consistent with the effects of pulsed radiofrequency energy. We would note that ‘consistent with’ is an artistic term in medicine and science that allows plausibility, but does not assign cause “.

Approximately 35 diplomats reported the mysterious wounds that began in late 2016, which affected U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba for much of the Trump administration.

In 2017, the State Department first raised concerns about U.S. embassy staff in Havana who had reported hearing loud noises and then experiencing symptoms such as earache, headaches. and pressure on the head. Early news mentioned sound weapons as the cause, which triggered deafness, damage to the inner ear and a concussion-like brain damage syndrome, all ruled out by the new NAS report, which Rex Tillerson, then head of the Department of State, called “health attacks“About diplomats and their families.

Other theories circulated suggesting that the mysterious diseases were caused by grill noises triggering massive hysteria or Russian spies are somehow zapping diplomats. In 2019, the State Department asked the NAS to review diseases with the little information available and with an emphasis on advising on how to gather medical information for future case groups. The group met three times over the past year, hearing from medical teams that had treated or examined some affected patients; it also reviewed reports from the CDC and the National Institutes of Health and heard testimony from eight patients in closed sessions.

But the lack of information about the people involved was obstructed by the panel, according to the report, due to security and medical privacy laws. The medical test data provided were not comprehensive enough as they were collected to help treat patients rather than investigate an injury outbreak.

“We had no information about individuals, including those first affected, those who were later affected, what their connections were,” said panel member Jeffrey Staab, a psychiatry professor at the Mayo Clinic. Given these limitations, the group focused on the acute and immediate symptoms reported among Havana diplomats (loud sounds, pressure, vibrations, earache, and headaches) as more distinctive and informative about the possible explanations. The group also ruled out recent reports of similar injuries to Canadian tourists and U.S. diplomats in China.

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

These same limits restricted what scientists might say were plausible explanations for the injuries, group members told BuzzFeed News. The theory that the mysterious disease was caused by an infectious disease, such as the Zika virus, was considered “highly unlikely,” and it was determined that “the outbreak is unlikely” to have been caused by pesticide poisoning. the scientists noted that there were no blood samples left from the patients to rule it out thoroughly.

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

Scientists also considered a third theory that massive psychological illness was the cause. In this scenario, a group of acute symptoms is followed by a wider number of chronic illnesses (especially persistent dizziness, difficulty thinking, insomnia, and headaches) that reflect past outbreaks of injuries propagated by social contagion. However, without data on people and their contacts to trace social media, Staab said, the group could not 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 a “radio frequency-directed energy attack.” Based on a real phenomenon called the “Frey effect”, where pulsed microwave beams aimed at a person’s ears could produce click noises that only the object person can hear, the group suggested that the “Frey effect” “was the” most plausible “of the explanations considered.

“It simply came to our notice then. 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 others and completely consistent with some of the most different clinical findings.”

The report concluded that a microwave attack could cause a compensatory balance and dizziness syndrome afterwards, accompanied by depression caused by their injuries. Chronic injuries often have psychological aspects that should not be ruled out as real symptoms, Staab said.

Some of the report’s most important findings were its recommendations to the State Department on how to thoroughly investigate any future cluster, with experts from many disciplines rather than just doctors familiar with brain injuries. “Whatever happens, we can’t let that happen again,” Staab said.

However, experts in microwaves and group psychology were very critical of the report’s findings.

“The report does not make a consistent argument as to why microwaves should intervene,” said Kenneth Foster, a bioengineer at the University of Pennsylvania who first described the mechanism behind the Frey effect. in 1974. The effect requires very high power levels to produce barely audible sounds, he said, and is not known to cause injury. “Maybe someone struggled to carry a large microwave transmitter to cause employees to hear‘ clicks, ’but there are easier ways to harass people than that,” he said.

“This is not science, it’s science fiction,” said UCLA neurologist Robert Baloh, co-author of Havana Syndrome: Massive Psychogenic Illness and Real History Behind the Embassy’s Mystery and Hysteria. Only news reports, which have not been considered by the committee, draw a picture of diseases spreading to patients in ways that closely resemble past group psychology outbreaks, Baloh said. “There is a big misunderstanding that these symptoms are real, people are really injured, even among doctors,” he added.

“This is not science, but science fiction.”

Neuroscientist Mitchell Joseph Valdés Sosa, of the Neuroscience Center of Cuba, said the report was a step in the right direction, as it invalidated the wildest theories of sound weapons and brain damage. The findings are similar to Report of the Cuban Academy of Sciences 2018, co-author of Sosa, who suggested that early injuries among some people probably spread by mass psychology to more people throughout the diplomatic community. “We don’t agree with the search for radiofrequency pulses, of course,” Sosa said, “but this is the first time we have American experts who recognize that psychogenic effects could be significant.”

He noted that the Cuban hotels and neighborhoods where the microwave attacks allegedly took place are located in crowded and crowded spaces, making it unlikely that such a small group will be affected or that the attacks may go unnoticed.

The Cuban Academy of Sciences came to the panel to present its surveys in nearby neighborhoods where the injuries were reported, Sosa added. But it was said that the group’s contract did not allow consultation with the Cubans.

None of the members of the group appear to have much experience in 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. to say he was skeptical based on his four decades of research. in the area. “There are many reports of biological effects of radio frequency fields, but none are reliable.”

Despite the reported suspicions of Russian spies somehow, based on Soviet-era research to create such a weapon, Pakhomov, a Russian emigrant, said the camp is now gone in Russia.

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




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