A U.S. medical team was screening more Americans who work in a southern Chinese city as the State Department confirmed evacuating a number of government workers who experienced unexplained health issues like those that have hurt U.S. personnel in Cuba and China.
The evacuations of the workers in Guangzhou followed medical testing that revealed they might have been affected. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said “a number of individuals” had been brought to the U.S. but didn’t say how many were affected or evacuated. One case in Guangzhou had been disclosed last month.
She said tests were being offered to “any personnel who have noted concerning symptoms or wanted baseline screening.”
The incidents have raised fears that the unexplained issues that started in Cuba in 2016 have expanded. The U.S. government has deemed those incidents “specific attacks” on American workers but hasn’t publicly identified a cause or culprit. Most of the incidents were accompanied by bizarre, unexplained sounds that initially led U.S. investigators to suspect a sonic attack.
Symptoms have included dizziness, headaches and an inability to concentrate. The American government worker who was removed from China earlier reported “subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure.”
Security guards outside the Guangzhou consulate checked reporters’ IDs on Thursday and told them to leave the area and not attempt to talk to consulate staff.
Asked about the latest incidents, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the U.S. had not formally raised the matter with Beijing.
“If the U.S. makes formal contact with us, China will continue necessary investigations in an earnest and responsible manner and maintain close communication and cooperation with the U.S.,” Hua said at a regularly scheduled news conference.
China earlier said it had looked into the first case but came up with no clues about the cause of the symptoms.
The New York Times identified the latest American employee evacuated as Mark A. Lenzi, a security engineering officer who left Wednesday night with his wife and two children.
Lenzi told the Times he lived in the same apartment tower as the officer evacuated in April and suffered in recent months from what he called “neurological symptoms.”
Lenzi’s apartment was in one of several high-rise buildings in the Canton Place featuring restaurants and galleries spaced around a central plaza. Another diplomat who reported symptoms was at a different upscale building near the consulate.
People working in Canton Place, a few miles from the consulate, said they were just learning about the incidents, reflecting a lack of coverage in China’s entirely state-controlled media.
Aled Williams, a British teacher at a kindergarten, said the reports sounded “sci-fi-ish.”
“Hard to get my head around how it works,” he said. “Better watch myself.”
Linda Chen, who runs a coffee shop in the area, said she was mystified as to why only certain people seemed to have been affected in an area known for its comfort and safety.
“For me I feel it’s very strange. But I don’t feel that there’s something to be very afraid of because it’s probably a very special case,” Chen said.
A U.S. official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the situation publicly and requested anonymity, said the evacuated Americans were being brought for testing to the University of Pennsylvania. That’s where doctors have been treating and studying patients evacuated from the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
The preliminary findings of the medical reports on the 24 personnel affected there showed they had sensory and memory problems similar to the brain dysfunction seen with concussions.
The Penn team said the patients experienced persistent disability, though rehabilitation therapy customized for them seemed to help.
Canada in April also ordered families of diplomatic staff in Cuba to return home after mysterious health symptoms were detected in 10 Canadians stationed on the island.
Canada said the 10 continued to show unexplained brain symptoms and that “medical information raised concerns for a new type of a possible acquired brain injury.”
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said China had “said all the right things and have demonstrated their willingness to help us identify the vector which led to this medical incident.”
The China incidents affect one of the most important of the seven U.S. diplomatic outposts in the country. The Guangzhou consulate opened months after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington in 1979 and moved to its new purpose-built facility in 2013.
It serves four southern provinces with a combined population of more than 204 million and processes more than 1 million visa applications of all types annually. It is also the only U.S. diplomatic installation in China authorized to process immigrant visas and handle adoptions.