Havana syndrome

News Excerpt:

A mysterious illness that has affected US diplomats in recent years has been linked to a Russian intelligence unit. The Kremlin recently dismissed a joint media investigation which found evidence that a Russian military intelligence unit might be responsible for the mysterious health condition known as ‘Havana syndrome’ that affected US diplomats and spies across the world.

What is Havana syndrome?

  • It refers to a set of mental health symptoms that are said to be experienced by United States intelligence and embassy officials in various countries. 
    • Generally, the word ‘syndrome’ simply means a set of symptoms. It does not mean a unique medical condition, but rather a set of symptoms that are usually experienced together whose origins may be difficult to confirm.
  • Symptoms: 
    • Havana syndrome typically involves symptoms such as hearing certain sounds without any outside noise, nausea, vertigo and headaches, memory loss, and balance issues.
  • Background:
    • As the name suggests, it traces its roots to Cuba in late 2016. 
      • This was about a year after the US opened its embassy in the capital city of Havana after ties between the two countries were normalised in 2015. 
      • Some US intelligence officials and members of the staff at the embassy began experiencing sudden bursts of pressure in their brains followed by persistent headaches, feelings of disorientation and insomnia.

Where has Havana syndrome been reported?

  • Since the Cuban incident, American intelligence and foreign affairs officials posted in various countries have reported symptoms of the syndrome.
  • In early 2018, similar accusations began to be made by US diplomats in China. The first such report was in April 2018 at the Guangzhou consulate. 
    • An American employee reported that he had been experiencing symptoms since late 2017. 
    • Another incident had previously been reported by a USAID employee at the US Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in September 2017.
  • In 2019 and 2020, such incidents have been reported from within the US — particularly in Washington DC.
    • One incident was even reported at The Ellipse, a lawn adjacent to the White House.
  • According to US media reports, in the past few years, its officials have reported more than 130 such experiences across the world including at Moscow in Russia, Poland, Georgia, Taiwan, Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Austria, among others. A New York Times report from 2021 said US Vice-President Kamala Harris was delayed for three hours as she was about to fly to Hanoi, Vietnam, after a US official in Vietnam reported the symptoms.
  • In India, the first such case was reported in the same year, when a US intelligence officer travelling to New Delhi with CIA director William Burns reported symptoms of Havana Syndrome.
  • The recent revelations come days after some National Institute of Health studies claimed that although various US government employees experienced these symptoms, there was no consistent evidence of brain injury. 
  • The report added that the symptoms, in fact, were possibly caused by “pre existing conditions, conventional illnesses, and environmental factors,” as well as some other factors.

What do we know of Havana Syndrome in India?

  • As of July 2023, the 2021 incident was the only reported occurrence of the syndrome in India. 
    • Sources in the Indian security establishment said in 2021 that they were not aware of any weapon with such capacities being in the possession of an Indian agency. 
    • Even if there was one, it was unlikely the government would admit to having acquired such counter-espionage technology given the sensitive nature of intelligence work.