Watch the mysteries of havana syndrome

Written by: The Exchange

It sure sounds like the logline for a Hollywood thriller. In late 2016, U.S. Embassy personnel in Havana, Cuba, began to report an unusual, perplexing set of symptoms. Loud noises accompanied by pain, pressure, or vibration. Dizziness, vertigo, and cognitive difficulties. Then personnel in the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China, started complaining of similar symptoms. But this is not fiction. Indeed, as many as 200 people have experienced what has come to be known as Havana Syndrome. About half of them are CIA agents or their families, with the other half split between Departments of Defense and State employees. Today, many of them continue to suffer from health problems and the phenomenon appears to be spreading with new cases coming in from U.S. diplomatic sites around the globe. Multiple hypotheses have been proposed to explain these clinical cases, but evidence is lacking and nothing has been proven. Given this lack of clarity, the U.S. government asked the National Academies to convene an expert panel to review the scientific evidence in support of the possible causes and provide advice on how to proceed with the official investigation. Join us for an intriguing conversation between the chair of that committee, Dr. David Relman, and writer/executive producer David Grae, as they review what we know—and what we don’t—about the mysteries of Havana Syndrome.


David A. Relman is the Thomas C. and Joan M. Merigan Professor in Medicine, and Microbiology & Immunology at Stanford University and chief of infectious diseases at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System. He was an early pioneer in the modern study of the human microbiome. David served as vice-chair of the National Research Council committee that reviewed the science performed for the Federal Bureau of Investigation 2001 anthrax letters investigation and is currently a member of the Intelligence Community Studies Board. He was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2011 and was a member of the Working Group on Biodefense for the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (The White House) (2016).

David Grae is currently developing an hour drama for Netflix. He was most recently an Executive Producer on CBS’s hit show Madam Secretary. He started his television-writing career as a staff writer on the Emmy-nominated Joan of Arcadia. He has also been a writer on Without a Trace, Gilmore Girls and Castle, where he was also an Executive Producer. His play Moose Mating has received several regional and international productions and is published by Dramatists Play Service. He is also the co-founder of Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.