Speaking at a press conference on 13 September after meeting with U.S. Department of State officials, Cuban neurophysiologist Mitchell Valdés-Sosa said there is no meeting of the minds on a potential explanation for what sickened U.S. diplomats in Havana.

Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo

Momentum builds for joint U.S.-Cuba study of mysterious maladies affecting Havana diplomats

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Breaking a monthslong impasse, scientists and medical doctors from the United States and Cuba huddled here on 13 September to discuss what the U.S. Department of State has characterized as “health attacks” on some two dozen personnel stationed at the U.S. embassy in Havana, alleged to have occurred since the end of 2016. There was no meeting of the minds on a potential explanation for the diplomats’ symptoms, which included headaches, dizziness, and insomnia after hearing strange noises or feeling a sensation of pressure. But momentum is building for a joint study by the Cuban and U.S. science academies.

Two research teams that have evaluated the diplomats assert that the symptoms are real and may have an underlying physical cause. In a report in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in February, Douglas Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), and co-authors described a “constellation” of symptoms consistent with a concussion that they believe constitutes a new neurological syndrome. And Michael Hoffer, an otolaryngologist at the University of Miami in Florida, and his colleagues have gathered evidence of what they describe as a unique vestibular and cognitive disorder in the diplomats.

The cause of the diplomats’ symptoms remains an enigma. In early 2017, when the U.S. embassy in Havana began to investigate the alleged incidents, its working hypothesis was that the victims were targeted by a long-range acoustic device. Hoffer’s team, working with the U.S. Office of Naval Research, is probing whether a directed energy weapon of some sort could have damaged the diplomats’ inner ears. Earlier this month, The New York Times, quoting Smith and others, declared microwaves are a “prime suspect.” Further fueling speculation, communications intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies implicate Russia in the alleged attacks, NBC News, citing anonymous sources, reported last week. But a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe last year uncovered no proof of an attack; White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told CBS News last week that “no determination has been made and the investigation is still ongoing.”

In late 2017, a Cuban expert panel reported that it had failed to uncover evidence of an attack. It contended that stressful conditions in the embassy community in Havana may have sickened the diplomats. That’s still the likeliest explanation, argues panel member Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, director of the Cuban Neuroscience Center in Havana. “We’re not saying the diplomats were hysterical, but we can’t rule out psychological contagion.”

Valdés-Sosa, a neurophysiologist, and eight Cuban colleagues were here last week by invitation from the Department of State to discuss the incidents with Kenneth Merten, acting principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, several officers from its Bureau of Medical Services, and members of the Department of State’s Health Incidents Response Task Force. In the weekslong leadup to the first face-to-face meeting on the incidents between specialists from the two countries, the Cuban delegation had asked to examine medical data, including brain scans, of the diplomats, and had requested members of the UPenn team to be present to discuss their findings, Valdés-Sosa says. Instead, the State Department medical officials summarized the UPenn findings and said they could not share medical data because of patient confidentiality. The Cuban scientists flagged what they viewed as the study’s shortcomings and challenged its main conclusions. Although the two sides found little common ground, Valdés-Sosa says, “The very fact we engaged is positive.” Nevertheless, he says, with no clinical records to examine together and the JAMA study’s authors not in the room, the Cuban side viewed the encounter “as a wasted opportunity.”

The State Department did not comment on Valdés-Sosa’s characterization of the meeting or answer Science’s questions about what State Department spokesperson Julia Mason terms “a general medical briefing about the injuries experienced by U.S. personnel who served in Havana.” “The health and well-being of our personnel remains our top priority,” Mason says.

The Cuban scientists spent a day on Capitol Hill as well, meeting with several legislators including Senator Bob Corker (R–TN) and Representative Rick Crawford (R–AR). “We told them that we want this to be depoliticized,” Valdés-Sosa says. And he says they had a particularly fruitful dialogue here with officials at the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) here. (The Cuban delegation was led by neurologist Luis Velázquez Pérez, president of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, who had to return to Havana soon after arriving on U.S. soil because of an illness in his family.)

Earlier this year, the Cuban academy proposed a joint study with its U.S. counterpart on the alleged attacks. According to Valdés-Sosa, the NASEM officials told the Cubans they are open to such a study if a funder were to materialize. The discussions were “productive,” says Vaughan Turekian, executive director for policy and global affairs at NASEM. “We … appreciated the opportunity to hear their perspectives and learn about their initial analyses,” he says. “As our governments continue their work to better understand the nature of the issue, the U.S. National Academies stand ready to assist, as needed, in mobilizing our experts and expertise.”

In the meantime, the Cuban scientists are conducting baseline studies on traumatic brain injury to complement the U.S. data. They are imaging the brains of individuals who suffered brain injuries of varying degrees of severity while playing sports, and comparing the scans to control subjects, says Valdés-Sosa, who says the study should be completed around the end of this year. The Cuban team has invited the U.S. investigators—including the scientists who examined the diplomats—to Havana to further probe the matter.