Fears of sonic attack on US embassy staff in China

US, China investigate as American embassy employee diagnosed with mild brain injury

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The US State Department issues a warning to Americans in China Wednesday after an employee of the consulate in Guangzhou reported an injury judged to be a minor form of brain trauma.

BEIJING • The US embassy in China issued a health alert yesterday after an employee experienced an "abnormal" sound and suffered a mild brain injury - in an incident reminiscent of a mysterious illness that hit diplomats in Cuba.

The US and Chinese authorities are investigating the matter after the American government employee, who was assigned to the southern city of Guangzhou, was diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI), said embassy spokesman Jinnie Lee.

"The medical indications are very similar and entirely consistent with the medical indications that have taken place to Americans working in Cuba," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a congressional hearing in Washington yesterday. "We are working to figure out what took place both in Havana and now in China as well."

In an alert e-mailed to US citizens in China, the embassy said it does not know what caused the symptoms or of any similar situations in the country.

In Cuba last year, the US disclosed that 24 diplomats and their family members had fallen victim to an unsolved mysterious attack that left them with injuries resembling brain trauma. Ten Canadian diplomats and their relatives also suffered a strange illness.

"We cannot at this time connect it with what happened in Havana, but we are investigating all possibilities," said a US embassy official.

The embassy's health alert says the employee "recently reported subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure".

  • Mystery illness

  • Canada announced last month that it was bringing home the families of its diplomats in Cuba after a year-long investigation into an illness - which left 10 diplomats with brain injuries - failed to reveal a cause.

    The move came after the United States last year withdrew a large number of its Cuban embassy staff after diplomats complained of symptoms such as hearing loss, dizziness, tinnitus, visual difficulties, headaches and fatigue.

    "The cause remains unknown but could be human-made," Canada's government concluded after its probe.

    The Canadian and US authorities had initially suspected a "sonic attack" or a "mass psychosomatic incident", but those are "now considered unlikely", a senior Canadian official said.


"The US government is taking these reports seriously and has informed its official staff in China of this event," the message says.

"While in China, if you experience any unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena accompanied by unusual sounds or piercing noises, do not attempt to locate their source. Instead, move to a location where the sounds are not present," it adds, urging people with medical problems to consult a doctor.

Ms Lee said the employee experienced "a variety of physical symptoms" between late last year through this April. The person was diagnosed with MTBI on May 18.

"The department is... working to determine the cause and impact of the incident," she said. "The Chinese government has assured us they are also investigating."

In Cuba, the victims had associated the onset of symptoms with "unusual sounds or auditory sensations", a State Department physician told the Senate in January, saying the victims suffered headaches, hearing loss, disorientation and some loss of cognitive ability.

Initially, officials suspected the Americans had been targeted by some sort of acoustic weapon, although in public, senior officials were more cautious, speaking of "health attacks". Media reports suggest that the FBI has not been able to verify any evidence to support the sonic weapon theory.

Washington has held Cuba responsible, arguing that it must have either carried out the assaults or known who was behind them.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2018, with the headline Fears of sonic attack on US embassy staff in China. Subscribe