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CUB | Sep 26, 2021

Cuba responds to U.S. claims of sonic attacks against its diplomatic staff – Part I

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The mysterious “ sonic attack”  head injuries plaguing U.S. diplomats operating in both China and Cuba, could be as a result of directed microwave energy according to  America’s National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

“Overall directed pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy, especially in those with the distinct early manifestations, appears to be the most plausible mechanisms in explaining these cases among those that the committee considered,” declared the NAS.

The United States has never directly accused any country of deliberately waging these sonic attacks but has made it clear that they could be weaponised and certain key personnel could be targeted.

“The mere consideration of such a scenario raises grave concerns about a world with disinhibited malevolent actors and new tools for causing harm to others, as if the U.S. Government does not have its hands full already with naturally occurring threats,” read the report.

Cuba has responded with its own  technical report on the matter by its Academy of Sciences entitled “An Assessment of the Health Complaints during Sojourns in Havana of Foreign Government Employees and their Families.”

Below is the first part of that report:

This report summarizes the work carried out by the Expert Group created by the Cuban Academy of Sciences (CAS) to assess a series of health complaints lodged by U.S. government employees (or their families) related to sojourns in Havana, Cuba.

On February 17, 2017, the U.S. Embassy in Havana communicated to the Ministry of Foreign Relations of Cuba that 4 of its diplomats and one spouse had suffered “sonic attacks.” Between that date and September 1, 2017, 15 additional cases emerged. There was a report of another case in 2018. In diplomatic notes (Department of State U.S., 2017), the U.S. government maintained that these employees suffered from diverse symptoms including nausea, dizziness, balance disorders, ear pain, hearing problems, facial and abdominal pain, “mental fog”, headaches, and sleep disorders.

Several persons reported unusual sounds or auditory sensations at the onset of their symptoms. The incidents took place at the homes of the employees or in hotel rooms. They usually affected only one person, even when several others were present. From the beginning, the U.S. Government postulated (without evidence) that long-range acoustic weapons caused these symptoms (C-SPAN, Video Record of Senate Hearings’ Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight, n.d.; Rubio, 2018). By 2018, 24 persons had reported health problems of this type, according to Department of State (DoS) sources (Rubio, 2018).

Rex Tillerson an American engineer and energy executive who served as the 69th U.S. secretary of state from February 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018, under President Donald Trump

On September 13, 2017, DoS withdrew all personnel from Havana when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/06/us/politics/tillerson-cuba-attacks- diplomats.html) ordered all non-emergency personnel to leave Havana due to “health attacks” (Department of State U.S., 2017).

 In June 2017, the U.S. embassy informed other embassies that “attacks” were taking place. Similar (but not identical) symptoms were reported subsequently by 14 employees of the Canadian Embassy in Havana. As we write, there have been many more reports of “mysterious episodes” affecting U.S. personnel worldwide, including incidents in Austria, Germany, and even the U.S. (Barnes & Schmitt, 2021).

Medical research units in the U.S. and Canada studied several subgroups of these cases. One subgroup was initially investigated at the University of Miami (UMiami) by a team led by Professor Michael Hoffer. A team led by Professor Douglas Smith at the University of Pennsylvania’s (UPenn) Center for Brain Injury and Repair studied another subgroup. The National Institutes of Health (N.I.H.) assessed another subset of cases. The Centers for Disease Control (C.D.C.) also reviewed cases. Although some persons probably were enrolled in more than one study, the degree to which this happened is not public.

The UMiami (Hoffer et al., 2018) and UPenn teams published partial reports of their studies (Swanson et al., 2018; Verma et al., 2019) in specialized medical journals. In 2020, the DoS commissioned the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to conduct an evaluation of the health incidents. NASEM convened a Blue-ribbon panel of physicians, engineers, and scientists, which held hearings on the topic. The panel’s released an account of their deliberations in a report at the end of 2020. (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, 2020). The report briefly mentioned preliminary results from the N.I.H. study. A heavily redacted C.D.C. report (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019) was released soon after, but the full N.I.H. report has is not publicly available.

“Mystery syndrome” narrative

The events just described have originated a quasi-official “mystery syndrome” narrative that unfolds as follows: “Attacks on many U.S. (and Canadian) employees using with mysterious energy weapons took place at their homes or in hotel rooms in Havana.

 In this narrative, the symptoms reported by the employees were framed within a novel medical syndrome caused by underlying, but undetected, “brain damage”. We say “quasi-official” because this story is espoused by mainstream media, by specific sectors in U.S. government agencies, groups of politicians and special interest groups in the U.S., and by some (not all) of the employees recently stationed in Havana. This narrative describes an extraordinary chain of events. Thus, it requires support from robust evidence. To sustain this narrative, one would need proof that the following claims are valid:

Claim 1: A novel syndrome with shared core symptoms and signs is present in the affected employees.

Claim 2: It is possible to detect brain damage originating during a sojourn in Havana in these employees.

Claim 3: A directed energy source exists that could affect people’s brains from large distances after piercing through physical barriers at homes or hotel rooms.

Claim 4: A weapon capable of generating such a physical agent is realizable and identified.

Claim 5: Evidence is unearthed that an attack has taken place.
Claim 6: Available evidence falsifies alternative medical explanations.
Supporters of the “mystery syndrome” narrative assume solid scientific evidence for

claims one to four exists (based on the scientific articles and reports published by UMiami, UPenn, and NASEM). They also advocate that evidence will emerge for claim five, and that claim six has been demonstrated.

On the contrary, we maintain that there is no convincing scientific evidence for claims 1-4. Furthermore, we sustain that there is no evidence (either U.S., Canadian or Cuban) for point five (despite intensive investigation) and that claim six has been prematurely accepted. Below, we summarize the Cuban response to these events and then examine each of the six claims in detail.

The Cuban response

Immediately after the U.S. informed Cuban authorities of the first health complaints reported by some of their employees, the Cuban Ministry of Interior initiated a criminal investigation.

 It also reinforced the protective services they provide to the Embassy. The Cuban Government invited the F.B.I. to investigate in Havana, and when Canadian cases emerged, an invitation was extended to the Royal Canadian police (Hernandez-Caballero, 2021). In parallel, the Cuban Academy of Sciences (CAS) created a team of Cuban scientific experts to examine the problem. A summary of the early events from the Cuban point of view and results of the initial Cuban investigations can be found in the following document with accompanying video: http://www.granma.cu/mundo/2017-10-26/presuntos-ataques-acusticos-video.

Later CAS expanded the Expert Group, summoning scientific leaders in their respective disciplines and encompassing physicians from different fields ranging from audiology, neurology, neurophysiology, neuroimaging, epidemiology, internal medicine, psychiatry, and psychology.

 Other experts consulted were specialists in telecommunications, bioengineering, biology, biophysicists, and physics. The purpose was to study the reports of alleged health incidents and render an assessment based on the available information. This group was chaired by Professor Mitchell-Valdes-Sosa, director of the Cuban Center for Neuroscience, with the active involvement of Professor Luis Velazquez-Perez, President of CAS

Although CAS accepted from the outset that some U.S. employees and family members were feeling unwell, they sought to independently identify a scientific explanation of the health complaints given the wild speculation that was appearing in the U.S. media. The CAS Expert group did not have access to medical records related to the health complaints or the patients themselves, despite repeated requests to the U.S. authorities.

In the initial communications to Cuban officials, the U.S. Government invoked “sonic attacks” that had produced ear damage.

 Therefore, Cuban experts in Otorhinolaryngology interviewed 20 neighbors or employees at the residences of U.S. diplomats who were affected and had complained of unusual sounds. Neighbors of Canadian diplomats were also interviewed.

These interviewees did not report perceiving any distinctive sound or experiencing any new health problem. In addition, no other person who lived or worked nearby the diplomats’ residences visited their community health centers for hearing problems or other conditions caused by exposure to high-pitched sound during the period in which the health incidents occurred (http://www.granma.cu/mundo/2017-10-26/presuntos-ataques-acusticos-video). After that, the CAS Expert Group broadened its field of inquiry to other aspects.

The lack of access to patients, their medical records, or lab reports, and barriers to direct communication with the U.S. medical researchers (at N.I.H., C.D.C., UPenn, or UMiami) working with the patients, has severely hampered the work of the CAS team. Cuban doctors only had brief contact with Dr. Hoffer from UMiami in Cuba and received a meager summary of the medical examination of the first cases. Note that the NASEM panel complained of suffering many of the same limitations.

A Cuban delegation of 6 members of the CAS Expert Group was invited to the medical department of DoS (Washington DC) in September 2019 to review evidence about the reported health incidents. They were disappointed in not being able to meet with the medical researchers directly involved with the assessments of the patients.

 Unfortunately, the medical staff of DoS provided no new information during this visit and simply summarized parts of an first article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by the UPenn group. During this visit, the CAS team proposed conducting joint investigations on the health incidents, something also proposed repeatedly to NASEM and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The collaborations never materialized.

Cuban First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Marcelino Medina González called the current state of the Canada-Cuba relationship ‘very positive.’ Photograph courtesy of the Cuban embassy

In contrast, the Canadian Government first organized discussions of members of the medical staff from Global affairs with the CAS Expert Group in 2017 and 2019 and subsequently arranged a seminar in Havana in 2019 with the research team from the Brain Repair Center at Dalhousie University responsible for the medical research on the Canadian cases.

 The Dalhousie group concluded that most of their patients did not report strange sounds (Friedman et al., 2019). They hypothesized that intoxication by pesticides could have caused part of the symptoms. The Dalhousie group and the CAS team agreed to study in Havana cases of possible pesticide exposure, a project postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Dalhousie group subsequently posted their results on medRxiv (Friedman et al., 2019).

Prestigious U.S. scientists have engaged in email discussions with CAS, and several participated in the workshop “Is there a Havana Syndrome” that this organization held in March 2020 in Havana. Scientists from Europe, Canada, and New Zealand also participated together with their Cuban counterparts. The workshop was unbiased in its discussions and included a U.S. proponent of the radiofrequency hypothesis (Cuban Center for Neuroscience, 2020a, 2020b).

Thus, except for discussions with the Dalhousie group, the CAS team has had to rely on published articles, literature reviews, consultation with independent scientists worldwide and especially from the U.S., as well as carrying out field studies in Havana to reach their own conclusions.

 It also had access to the final report of the police investigation carried out by the Cuban Ministry of Interior, as well to the content of communications to this organization from the F.B.I. In May 2021, the IEEE (the most prominent engineering professional organization in the U.S.) organized a webinar with Prof. Kenneth Foster (UPenn) and Prof. Mitchell Valdes- Sosa as speakers. The webinar discussed “Did microwaves harm U.S. employees at its Embassy in Havana” (IEEE Philadelphia Section, IEEE Philadelphia SSIT Chapter, IEEE UK, and Ireland SSIT Chapter & SIGHT, 2021), with over 120 participants.

Critical appraisal of the claims supporting the “mysterious syndrome” narrative

Claim 1: A novel syndrome with shared core symptoms and signs was found in these employees

The UPenn group claimed in a first article in JAMA that a novel syndrome (shared by all cases) was present in the sample of 24 patients they studied (Swanson et al., 2018), a concept extrapolated by many to all other U.S. cases and even the Canadian cohort. The syndrome was proposed to consist of persistent cognitive, balance, visual/auditory dysfunction, sleep impairment, and headaches. Cognitive, vestibular, and oculomotor abnormalities, with moderate to severe sensorineural hearing loss in some individuals, were claimed to have been revealed by objective tests. The health complaints were linked to “directional sensory phenomena” in all the publications by U.S. researchers – but not by the Canadian group (Friedman et al., 2019).

An editorial by editors of JAMA (Muth & Lewis, 2018) commented on the article published in their journal by the UPenn group. This editorial cautioned that the study was a case series (not a controlled clinical trial). It lacked blinding, a comparison group, and baseline data on patients before exposure. The observations of clinicians were not standardized. It also alerted that the symptoms were nonspecific and were present in many other medical conditions.

The symptoms were self-reported by patients after profuse coverage of the problem in the media. The editorial concluded that: “At this point, a unifying explanation for the symptoms experienced by the U.S. government officials described in this case series remains elusive, and the effect of possible exposure to audible phenomena is unclear” (page E2). After its publication, a flurry of letters to the editors harshly criticized this article (Bartholomew, 2018; Gianoli et al., 2018; Shura et al., 2018; Stone et al., 2018).

There are severe problems with the proposal of a novel syndrome made by Swanson et al.:

● The first problem is that there are significant differences across cases. A news article (https://www.politico.com/news/2021/05/12/trump-havana-syndrome-probe-487716) quotes a Department of Health and Human Services staffer as saying: “..that there was very little consistency in the symptoms across the incidents: some people reported dizziness; others reported pain, or an unusual sound. Every person had some unique combination…”.

  • ●  Formal clinical research reinforces this anecdotal indication of heterogeneity. When faced with an outbreak of illness, the standard C.D.C. procedure is to build a “case definition” (https://www.cdc.gov/csels/dsepd/ss1978/lesson6/section2.html) since unrelated cases (false positives) are frequently included by physician misdiagnosis or by self-diagnosis by concerned individuals.

     For this outbreak (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019), a presumptive case was defined as a biphasic onset of symptoms while in Cuba (or within two weeks of returning), with an initial phase with at least one of the following symptoms: head pressure, disorientation, nausea, headache, vestibular disturbances, auditory symptoms, vision changes. A secondary phase included vestibular disorders and cognitive deficits.
  • ●  Despite this lenient definition, the C.D.C. concluded that out of 95 records reviewed at the time, only 15 met their case definition (16%). However, another 31 “possible” cases were found (33%) with an even looser definition. The C.D.C. suggested that at least two sub- groups of patients were involved: one small sub-group with both phases and the another larger one with only the second phase.
  • ●  As stated on page 13 of the NASEM report (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine, 2020): “Because of these various aspects of case heterogeneity, the committee found it difficult to know with certainty that all cases were due to the same cause(s)”.
  • ●  Subjective balance, sleep, and headache complaints appear to be the most frequently reported elements. The problem is that these complaints are very frequent in the general population for the relevant age group, as documented in numerous studies (Burch et al., 2018; Chung et al., 2015; Hagen et al., 2018; Léger et al., 2008; Murdin & Schilder, 2015; Ohayon, 2011). Therefore, these highly prevalent symptoms do not sustain the claim of a novel syndrome.
  • ●  Contrary to the original UMiami and UPenn claims, objective hearing loss is not part of the proposed novel syndrome. Only 3 of 24 individuals described by Swanson et al. (2018) had abnormal audiograms, differing in their profiles. This heterogeneity in audiogram profiles indicates distinct etiologies. Furthermore, the report by UMiami (Hoffer et al., 2018) recognized that the cases of hearing loss they found (presumably the same studied by UPenn) were due to pre-existing conditions. Pre-existing conditions were also present for the few Canadian patients with objective hearing loss (Friedman et al., 2019).

● Objective cognitive findings. Swanson et al. (2018) claimed that their cases presented widespread cognitive deficits as ascertained by neuropsychological tests. However, this finding rested on a faulty selection of thresholds for determining deviation from normality in the neuropsychological tests.

 This flaw was challenged in an article (Della Sala & Cubelli, 2018), a review in Neuroskeptic (https://www.discovermagazine.com/mind/bad-science-of- the-havana-embassy-sonic-attack) and a scathing editorial in the journal Cortex. The international Editorial Board of Cortex voted almost unanimously to request the JAMA article’s retraction (Cortex Editorial Board, 2018).

The first JAMA report used as their threshold the 40th percentile of the distribution values for the normal population for each of the 37 tests used. This threshold means that almost half of any group of healthy people would have “abnormal” results on each test, and almost certainly any person would be found “pathological” if they submitted to many tests (which is the case for the JAMA article).

 A computer simulation showed that every normal person assessed with this criterion would be considered pathological (Della Sala & McIntosh, 2018). In subsequent correspondence in jAMA, the authors did not defend their choice of using a 40th percentile threshold but implied that they referred to “within-individual” deviations from “their respective means” (Hampton et al., 2018).

This claim is even more problematic (Della Sala et al., 2018). Also, in the Hoffer et al. paper, fourteen of the individuals considered in the study complained of cognitive impairments. These authors state that formal neuropsychological assessment confirmed these subjective complaints in nine individuals. However, the paper does not report this formal assessment.

The CAS concluded that the clinical data indicated a heterogeneous group of people whose health complaints were brought together by the interaction of other contextual psychosocial factors (Blanco-Aspiazu et al., 2021). 


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