Picture: 123RF/LEEKRIS
Picture: 123RF/LEEKRIS

Washington — The state department has recalled some Americans stationed in China to investigate a mystery ailment that the agency compared with health issues previously detected among US diplomats in Cuba.

Heather Nauert, a state department spokeswoman, said on Wednesday night that a medical team had been sent to examine employees at the US consulate in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, after one "employee had suffered a medical incident that was consistent with what American personnel in Havana, Cuba, had experienced".

The examinations "are ongoing for any personnel who have noted concerning symptoms or wanted baseline screening", Nauert said. "The department has sent a number of individuals for further evaluation and a comprehensive assessment of their symptoms and findings in the US."

The state department declined to comment on individual cases, and said China had assured US officials that it was investigating the incidents.

After the US first issued a health alert about the incident in May, China said it was committed to ensuring the safety of diplomatic personnel stationed on its soil. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing on Thursday that China had "adopted a responsible attitude to investigate relevant issues and had not found cause or clues". She said Washington had not contacted Beijing about the issue since the first case in May.

The health scare comes at a sensitive time between the world’s two largest economies, which have clashed in recent days over everything from trade to territorial disputes in the South China Sea. In May, the Pentagon complained to Beijing that Chinese personnel had pointed lasers at US military aircraft near the East African country of Djibouti, a claim China denies.

Initial feedback

In the Cuban episode in 2017, more than 20 people fell ill with symptoms including hearing loss, cognitive difficulties and sleep problems in what the state department initially called an "attack". The US recalled half its diplomats in the Caribbean nation and warned Americans against travelling there. It also expelled 15 Cuban officials from Washington.

President Donald Trump has said he believed Cuba knew about the attacks, although the state department has since refrained from using the term. Investigators still have not determined the source.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a congressional hearing in May that an American stationed in Guangzhou experienced similar symptoms from late 2017 until April 2018. That person reported abnormal sensations of sound and pressure before being diagnosed with a mild brain injury.

"We are working to figure out what took place both in Havana and now in China, as well," Pompeo said at the time.

The secretary of state has formed a task force to co-ordinate with other US agencies on reports of diplomatic health concerns. "The task force will continue to address the unexplained health incidents that have affected US government personnel and their family members stationed overseas," Nauert said on Wednesday.