Новичок – Novichok what do we know and what do we not know?
by Philip Ingram MBE
Prime Minister Teresa May confirming the agent used in the assassination attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, that put Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey in intensive care and contaminated a number of other people as Novichok, has clarified some of what the country speculated and raised a whole new set of questions; not least of which is what is Novichock? What do we know about it and more importantly what do we not know about it?
I find myself in the slightly unenviable position of being referred to as an expert given my military and military intelligence background, the fact that on my basic and master’s degree courses I studied chemical defence and through my military career I was frequently involved in planning and practising warfare in contaminated chemical environments. I have been fortunate to visit the amazing facilities at DSTL Porton Down on several occasions and get insights to what the scientists are doing to try and protect us not just from these deadly weapons but wider threats such as Disease X, recently referred to by the WHO as one of the next big threats. My insights are based on a little more knowledge than the average person and many years of study.
The one thing I can say with real certainty about Novichok, is that we don’t know a lot about it, so I would strongly advise commentators to be very careful about going into detailed descriptions. As a former intelligence officer, I have never liked what we referred to as “Google INT” or “Wiki INT” from sources that could be providing false collateral to each other and are very difficult to verify. Remember the Russians will have kept the real detail behind their Novichok programme highly classified and any information western governments have on it will be even more highly classified. Not surprisingly, journalism has the same caveats and we must remember to keep them.
Before I look at Novichok specifically the question I will answer is, “What are the military uses for persistent nerve agents?” Persistent nerve agents are designed as area denial weapons, like the chemical equivalent of a minefield, but one that could be very rapidly deployed by artillery bombardment or aircraft. They are designed to act rapidly and cause maximum living casualties to overwhelm medical evacuation capabilities, medical facilities and logistic chains thereby taking a commanders’ focus off warfighting. The final effect and this is one being felt in Salisbury and across the country, is psychological. A colourless, odourless, deadly threat where you first know you are contaminated when you exhibit symptoms and become a casualty!
So why develop Novichock? NATO forces were very well versed in conducting warfare in chemical environments and their protective clothing and equipment meant that the Russians would be concerned that their chemical weapons use doctrine would be rendered less effective. In addition, in the 1980’s the first real progress towards the Chemical Weapons Convention that would ban current weapons occurred with the 1978 Geneva Conference renamed in 1980 to the Conference on Disarmament. So, Russian scientists needed something that would defeat NATO protective equipment and defeat any rules imposed via a developing CWC.
So, what do we know or what can we assess?
Novichok is the collective name for a series of what are referred to as 4th generation nerve agents and as such are compounds that have the capacity to inactivate the enzyme acetylcholinesterase which is there to ‘turn off’ a trigger signal in a nerve caused by acetylcholine. If you can’t turn it off the nerve keeps firing and the nervous system throughout the body, its control mechanism, is destroyed.
Novichok agents were invented, probably in the 1980’s by the Russians. They were designed to be significantly more powerful than VX, to be undetectable using standard NATO chemical detection equipment, to defeat NATO chemical protective gear and to be safer to handle. We saw military personnel deployed into Salisbury wearing additional protective suits over their standard military issue ones but what look like standard respirators.
Novichok agents are designed to be very persistent, this means that inhalation is not the primary route of exposure. Contact with the skin, and with them being significantly more toxic than VX, in the minutest quantity, is the primary exposure route.
You can probably count the number of scientists from across the globe who have worked on Novichok agents and have a true knowledge of what they are and their effects on 2 hands; now that DSTL Porton Down have real samples to deal with, this number has just gone up. Additionally, the rationale behind why they were ‘invented’ is likely only an assessment.
Chemical weapons are as much a psychological weapon as one that causes injury as they are designed to destroy the will to fight through terror. We are certainly seeing the psychological effect on some of the population of Salisbury, but more significantly its political effect. Chemical weapons are often referred to as weapons of mass destruction (WMD), I believe they should more accurately be referred to as weapons of mass effect (WME) due to the panic they cause.
It is reported that Novichok agents may be able to come in binary form, two inert chemicals that when mixed form the agent, or provided in a fully active form. It could be a liquid or a powder. The reality is it can probably be delivered in a variety of means and, given its rarity, the full extent of its delivery means is not known but merely assessed.
What do we not know (yet)?
We do not know the sequence and location of contamination of Sergei Skripal, Yulia Skripal and Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey. We do not know what the contaminated place or object was that the Skripal’s first came in contact with the agent, we do not know how it got into the country or how it left a very carefully controlled Russian chemical warfare laboratory. We do not know the full extent of the contamination in various places around Salisbury and we do not know how it took so long for the Skripals to collapse if they were contaminated in their home.
Assessing all of the information available is interesting and complex. If the theories I outlined in my blogs here: http://ghmedia.wpengine.com/sergei-skripal-assassination/ and here: http://ghmedia.wpengine.com/sergei-and-yulia-skripal-assassination-attempt-further-comment/ continue to hold accuracy I still believe on the balance of probabilities Russian President Putin ordered assassination attempt using Novichok. This reinforces one of the effects he was trying to achieve (stick a proverbial 2 fingers up at the West), as he would have known it would be traced back to him. It also sends a very powerful message to any political dissenters about his confidence in his power base. This was a political attack rather than an assassination attempt; the means required the assassination attempt.
However, President Putin is a cunning ex-Intelligence commander. He will have built in various scenarios to suggest he wasn’t directly involved, what I call plausibly deniable excuses. Paraphrasing Donald Rumsfeld, there is stuff we know, there is stuff we know we don’t know but there is probably more that would fit into the category we don’t know what we don’t know.
Note: This blog will be updated as new information is received. The current version was updated at 0900 on 13th March 2018 – if you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE