The State Department confirmed on Wednesday that numerous employees in China are receiving “ongoing” medical evaluations after a U.S. citizen at the American consulate in Guangzhou was diagnosed with a brain injury in an incident that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described as “entirely consistent” with injuries in Havana, Cuba.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that the State Department has evacuated at least two workers at the Guangzhou consulate, identifying one of them as Mark A. Lenzi, a security engineering officer.
The State Department previously issued a travel alert for Americans in China, prompting Foreign Minister Wang Yi to warn Washington not to “politicize” the incidents.
“The medical screenings are ongoing for any personnel who have noted concerning symptoms or wanted baseline screening,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Wednesday, according to the Hill. “As a result of the screening process so far, the Department has sent a number of individuals for further evaluation and a comprehensive assessment of their symptoms and findings in the United States.”
Nauert’s statement did not elaborate further or many any more evacuations, though the New York Times reports that “at least two more” Americans have left Guangzhou as a result of the brain injury sustained by the first known victim: “The Americans who were evacuated worked at the American Consulate in the southern city of Guangzhou, and their colleagues and family members are being tested by a State Department medical team, officials said.”
The Times offers details only about Lenzi, who the newspaper reports lived in the same building as the first individual evacuated and expressed outrage internally at the consulate that it took a month after the first individual was diagnosed with a brain injury for other employees to hear about the first incident. The retelling of his and his wife’s experience to the Times heavily resembles what the diplomats in Cuba reportedly suffered: headaches, strange physical symptoms, and occasional “unusual noises.”
The Associated Press reported on Thursday that the individuals tested are being brought to the University of Pennsylvania, where the victims of the Havana attacks were also studied and treated. UPenn professors published a study in February finding that a “novel mechanism” was used to attack the diplomats in Cuba, confirming that the symptoms were the result of real physical damage and were not psychosomatic or the product of paranoia.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded to concerns regarding the reports on Thursday by assuring reporters that China is taking the situation seriously, though describing the events as “so-called sonic waves.”
“By far, we have found no reason or clue that would lead to the situation reported by the US side,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. “China will ensure the safety of foreign diplomatic staff in China, including those from the US, in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.”
Hua appeared to express some irritation at what she described as a lack of communication on the part of the United States.
“I myself learnt about the relevant information through media reports, and I am not aware of the specifics,” she told reporters. “If there is any problem, the U.S. can directly tell us. We will investigate the case and coordinate with the U.S. side in a consistently responsible way.”
Secretary Pompeo announced this week the establishment of a special task force to examine all similar incidents, which during the Rex Tillerson era the State Department described as “attacks.” The State Department has not officially confirmed the sonic nature of the attacks, though multiple reports have confirmed that the victims heard strange static noises before they began to suffer symptoms. The Associated Press published a recording of the sound in October.
“The Health Incidents Response Task Force serves as the coordinating body for Department and interagency activities, including identification and treatment of affected personnel and family members, investigation and risk mitigation, messaging, and diplomatic outreach,” Pompeo’s statement debuting the task force read. “The Task Force includes interagency partners, such as the Departments of Health and Human Services, Commerce, Justice, Defense and Energy, as well as other members of the foreign affairs community.”
“The precise nature of the injuries suffered by the affected personnel, and whether a common cause exists for all cases, has not yet been established,” Pompeo noted.