Havana syndrome-like symptoms are now gripping US diplomats in Vienna

By Malavika Pradeep

Published Jul 19, 2021 at 01:46 PM

Reading time: 5 minutes

“In October 2017, I started to get hives all over my body. Really bad hives. I woke up with headaches every day,” said Catherine Werner, a US trade officer who promoted American business from the US consulate in Guangzhou, China. In a segment run by CBS’ 60 minutes in 2019, Werner explained how her symptoms worsened to the point where she would wake up with nosebleeds while her dogs threw up blood. Although Werner assumed her symptoms were connected to China’s toxic smog, she didn’t realise their resemblance to what American officials in Havana have been suffering from since 2016.

What is Havana syndrome?

Initially referred to as ‘the Thing’ and ‘Immaculate Concussion’, Havana syndrome is used to define a set of medical symptoms reported by the American and Canadian embassy staff in Cuba dating back to late 2016. According to The Guardian, at least 16 US government employees suffered from a range of symptoms including headaches, dizziness, vomiting, bowel spasms, vertigo, permanent hearing loss and even brain damage.

Although the symptoms weren’t always the same, they typically started off with an unexplained onset of pain and pressure in the head and ears. WebMD noted how some people reported hearing a loud noise followed by nausea, dizziness, confusion and disorientation. “It usually happened in people’s homes and some say it altered the way they could move their bodies afterward.” The symptoms are therefore described as a “cognitive fog”—similar to experiencing a concussion without actually having one.

As a response, the US accused Cuba of carrying out “sonic attacks” before minimising their staff to a skeletal set at the embassy. These claims were strongly denied by Cuba, which led to an increased tension between the two nations. Starting late 2017, however, US diplomats in China started reporting symptoms similar to those in Cuba, as did undercover CIA agents working in other countries with partner agencies to counter Russian covert operations.

“For me it was November of 2017, when I started to feel lightheaded a lot,” said Mark Lenzi, a State Department security officer who worked in the US consulate in Guangzhou, alongside Werner. In the interview with CBS, Lenzi explained how he and his wife began experiencing the symptoms after hearing strange noises in their apartment.

“Picture holding a marble,” Lenzi said, explaining the sound. “Then, picture if you had like a six foot in diameter metal funnel. The sound that marble would make as it goes around and it progressively gets faster as it goes down towards the hole at the end.” Lenzi mentioned how the sound was unlike anything he has ever heard before. He also admitted to hearing the sound three to four times per day in the same spot. “Always over my son’s crib and always right before we would go to bed.”

Lenzi believes he was targeted due to the nature of his work, which involved the use of top secret equipment to analyse electronic threats to diplomatic missions. “This was a directed standoff attack against my apartment,” he said, labelling Havana syndrome as an “energy weapon” based on radio frequency energy in the microwave range. The official currently wears prescribed glasses with light sensitivity being one of the persistent symptoms.

A covert weapon in an ‘acoustic’ war

Ever since the incidents began in Cuba, US federal investigators have been struggling to determine the root cause of the mysterious illness. In 2019, a US academic study found “brain abnormalities” in the diplomats who had fallen ill, but Cuba quickly dismissed the report. As of 2021, there have been cases reported worldwide with a Senate committee in April concluding the number of suspected cases to be on a rise.

In April 2021, CNN reported on two separate incidents that occurred near the White House affecting National Security Council staffers. The following month witnessed the Pentagon allegedly drafting a memo to the entire US military and civilian workforce—asking personnel to report any so-called “anomalous health symptoms” that might indicate they have been victims of the Havana syndrome. According to the latest CNN report, no final decision has been made on whether to issue the memo, but the fact it’s being considered “underscores the growing concern at the Pentagon’s senior levels that they need to gather more information on the illness.”

More than 20 officials have reported symptoms similar to Havana syndrome ever since President Joe Biden took office in January. The US government is currently investigating a series of health incidents in the Austrian capital Vienna involving its diplomats and other administration staff.

“We take these reports very seriously and, according to our role as the host state, are working with the US authorities on a joint solution,” the Federal Ministry of European and International Affairs said on 17 July 2021. “The security of diplomats dispatched to Austria and their families is of utmost priority for us.” A US State Department spokesperson also mentioned how the US government is “vigorously investigating reports of possible unexplained health incidents among the US Embassy Vienna community or wherever they are reported.”

Although there is no solid proof till date, some of the possible explanations for the mysterious symptoms include reactions to a pesticide, a deliberate poisoning and—most notably—an attack with a sonic or microwave weapon or covert spying device. A clue which supports the former is a theory that was revealed by the National Security Agency in 2014. The statement described such weapons as a “high-powered microwave system weapon that may have the ability to weaken, intimidate or kill an enemy over time without leaving evidence.” The statement goes on to explain how the weapon is  “designed to bathe a target’s living quarters in microwaves.”

In these terms, microwave weapons are a type of direct energy weapons, which aim highly focused energy in the form of sonic, laser or microwaves at a target. It works the same way the microwave ovens in our kitchens do—with an electron tube called a magnetron producing electromagnetic waves (microwaves). The microwaves agitate the water molecules in the food and their vibration produces heat that cooks the food. This is why foods with a high water content cook faster in a microwave than drier foods.

Similarly, the high-frequency electromagnetic radiations from microwave weapons heat water in the human body to cause discomfort and pain.

A report published by the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) also found “directed microwave radiation” to be the plausible cause of the Havana syndrome. The report examined four possibilities to explain the symptoms: infection, chemicals, psychological factors and microwave energy before concluding on the latter. It also warned about the possibility of future episodes and recommended establishing a response mechanism for similar incidents—adding that future incidents might be more dispersed in time and place, and even more difficult to recognise.

However, the committee added how they could not rule out other possible mechanisms and considers it likely that a “multiplicity of factors explains some cases and the differences between others.” Although the US praised NAS for undertaking the effort, it highlighted how each possible cause remains speculative. It also flagged the committee’s lack of access to some information because of potential security concerns that limited the scope of the report.

One notable aspect of the study is the use of the words “directed” and “pulsed” when referring to the radiation. The report hence leaves no room for confusion that the victims’ exposure was targeted and not due to common sources of microwave energy.

The alleged road to recovery

Fuelled back into much-needed call to action by The New York Times, the news of the syndrome being traced in Vienna comes right after Pegasus spyware was revealed to have been used in hacking attempts on 37 smartphones belonging to human rights activists and journalists. According to The Guardian, the spyware—developed by the Israeli cyberarms firm NSO Group—is capable of extracting all of a mobile phone’s data and activating the microphone to listen in on conversations.

The list of journalists dates back to 2016 and includes reporters from The Washington Post, CNN, the Associated Press, Voice of America, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, Le Monde, The Financial Times, and Al Jazeera. Although in a statement emailed to The Verge, an NSO spokesperson denied the claims in the report, saying it was “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability and interests of the sources,” it’s not the first time the spyware has been accused of playing a part in a larger “surveillance campaign.”

Between July and August 2020, research organisation Citizen Lab found 36 phones belonging to Al Jazeera journalists hacked using the technology—suspecting Saudi Arabia and the UAE behind the cyber attack. In 2019, WhatsApp sued NSO, claiming Pegasus was used to hack users of WhatsApp’s encrypted chat service.

Such weapons are essentially being used to intimidate, terrorise and discredit targeted individuals. With cyber attacks like extortionware gathering momentum as we speak, such schemes leverage mental health systems as a cover to carry out psychological warfare operations. While studies have credited natural blink reflexes, aversion responses and head turning as potential measures to protect our eyes from microwave weapons, it is still not clear if they can kill human targets. But it’s only a matter of time before such technology is weaponised for mass destruction.

Keep On Reading

By Charlie Sawyer

Video of teenage girls using makeup to put on blackface in Sephora goes viral

By Charlie Sawyer

Nikki Haley snaps at Fox News reporters who asked her why she hasn’t dropped out of the election

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

AI reimagines 10 of your favourite movie characters as pink Barbie-like icons

By Charlie Sawyer

Did Travis Kelce propose to Taylor Swift after the Super Bowl 2024?

By Abby Amoakuh

Sydney Sweeney sex tape leak malware used as bait by hackers on Twitter

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Is Kylie Jenner broke? New conspiracy theory suggests the billionaire might be out of cash

By Charlie Sawyer

Timothée Chalamet finally addresses Kylie Jenner and Selena Gomez feud in TMZ video

By Charlie Sawyer

Emily Ratajkowski debuts divorce rings, symbolising the beginning of the loud breakup era

By Abby Amoakuh

GQ Australia Man of the Year Troye Sivan dominated 2023. Here are all the receipts

By Emma O'Regan-Reidy

Do you watch or listen to content at 1.5x speed? Here’s what it actually does to you

By Abby Amoakuh

JoJo Siwa reveals she spent a staggering $50,000 on this surprising cosmetic surgery procedure

By Jack Ramage

What is bone smashing? Incelism’s newest and most dangerous beauty trend

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

With the rise of narco influencers comes a rise in narco-funerals. Here’s what you need to know

By Abby Amoakuh

Who is Courtney Clenney, the OnlyFans model accused of stabbing her boyfriend to death?

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Influencer Chiara Ferragni issues apology amid €1M fine for misleading charity Christmas cake sale

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

My interview with a professional cuddler who earns £75 per hour

By Abby Amoakuh

Controversial video chat site Omegle shuts down after mounting child abuse allegations

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

AI-generated porn is growing in popularity. But will it simply become another man’s world?

By Abby Amoakuh

Travis Barker’s ex-wife takes jab at his relationship with Kourtney, calls Kardashians disgusting

By Charlie Sawyer

Dua Lipa fan and Nicki Minaj fan get into a real-life standoff over internet beef