About two dozen Americans at the United States embassy in Vienna have fallen ill with the mysterious “Havana syndrome,” US and Austrian officials say.
“In coordination with our partners across the US Government, we are vigorously investigating reports of possible unexplained health incidents among the US Embassy Vienna community or wherever they are reported,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement.
As first reported in The New Yorker, over 20 American diplomats, intelligence officers, and other officials in the Austrian capital have experienced symptoms of the syndrome, which typically include headaches, tinnitus, and balance and memory problems. The most serious cases have included permanent brain damage.
The illness was first reported in 2016 by American embassy workers in Havana, Cuba. Since then, over 130 US government and military personnel have been stricken, including in China, Syria, Russia, and even within the United States, not far from the White House.
The high number of cases reported in Vienna now makes it the second-most affected city, after Havana itself. In a statement, Austria’s foreign ministry said it is working with the US government to get to the bottom of the incidents.
“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 country’s Federal Ministry of European and International Affairs said. “The security of diplomats dispatched to Austria and their families is of utmost priority for us.”
The cause of the syndrome is still officially unknown, but US officials suspect it’s not a naturally occurring illness. A report commissioned by the State Department, which was leaked to The New York Times last year, said the most likely source was “directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy.”
That language implies that the energy is being deliberately targeted at people using some sort of device, though the report was vague about how or by whom. Public officials briefed on the matter have been more blunt.
“There’s a mysterious, direct energy weapon that is being used,” Senator Susan Collins told CNN after a briefing by CIA officials in May. “And it is causing, in some cases, permanent traumatic brain injury.”
Who could be using such a weapon remains a mystery, although the US military has its suspicions. According to Politico, the Pentagon has told top members of Congress that it believes Russia is behind the incidents. Russia has denied any responsibility.