Salisbury and Novichok the truth and myth
Updated 07/0718 1645 by request for additional information
As someone who commanded an intelligence unit with a capability for the covert surveillance of Russian intelligence operations, has studied organic chemistry related to defence against chemical and biological weapons at both degree and master’s degree level, I think I am qualified to do some analysis of detail that is coming out from the reporting of the Sergei and Yulia Skripal and subsequent incidents in Salisbury.
Also, having commented widely in the national and international press I thought I would put all my thoughts in one place.
What is Novichok?
Novichok (новичок meaning “newcomer” or “newbie”) are a series of organophosphate-based nerve agents. They were designed by the Russians in the 1970’s and 80’s as they sought to produce a binary chemical warfare agent whose constituent parts would fall out with the chemicals that were to be banned in the International Probation of Chemical Weapons Convention, that was in its diplomatic infancy at the time.
A binary device consists of two ‘safe’ compounds that when mixed together form the nerve agent but on their own are little or no danger. An organophosphate nerve agent is one that works on attacking the chemical switch inside every nerve cell in your body that turns the nerve cell off after being stimulated. That chemical switch is an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase and nerve agents destroy the body’s ability to synthesise that enzyme.
Nerve agents fall into 3 persistence categories, non-persistent, eg Sarin (used by Assad in Syria), which has the consistency of petrol and evaporates relatively quickly; persistent agents eg Vx (used to assassinate Kim Jong Nam (Kim Jong Un’s half-brother) in Kuala Lumpur airport last year and has the consistency of engine oil; and very persistent such as Novichok that can be in a solid, powder or treacle level of consistency.
Aside from Sarin, the primary method of absorption for nerve agents into the body is through the skin, so it is unlikely that you would know that you have been contaminated with this the colourless, odourless substance until you start to exhibit symptoms. The symptoms can build slowly for low exposure or come on rapidly for high dose exposure and include: Runny nose and eyes, small pupils or blurry vision, coughing, chest tightness, wheezing, or shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain or diarrhoea, fatigue, headache, or sweating, muscle twitching or a seizure, leading to collapse, respiratory failure and death. Nerve agents are designed to cause casualties first and foremost to overwhelm evacuation and medical facilities on the battlefield and to deny ground through a sort of chemical minefield.
Why were the Skripals attacked?
Contrary to popular belief assassinating Sergei Skripal was not the main aim of his attack. Sergei Skripal was chosen because he lived in Salisbury and in President Putin’s eyes, was a legitimate target, more of which in a minute. The main reason for this attack, 14 days before the Russian Presidential election was to send a message to any Putin dissenters across the globe that he could get them anywhere, any time and in a horrible way. The second reason was to build a nationalistic strength call, into his campaign domestically.
Sergei Skripal was chosen because Salisbury in next to DSTL Porton Down, the UK’s chemical defence labs and this allowed an element of plausible deniability where President Putin could claim that this was set up to undermine him in the eyes of the international community, and that is exactly the messaging that came out in the immediate aftermath of the attack. The Russians have a doctrine called маскировка (maskirovka) which is all about this and is central to all they do.
The Russians also have an unhealthy belief in conspiracy theories and that the west is out to get them no matter what!
Was this a new attack or related to the Skripal attack?
This latest incident is almost 100% related to contaminated detritus left from the Skripal attack. Novichok has only ever been used once, and that was 4 months ago in Salisbury.
Looking at the timeline from probable contamination to hospitalisation my assumption for what happened would be: Dawn Sturgess in Queen Elizabeth Park touched some residual contamination on a bench, or spotted a syringe (or other object) in the hedge. Knowing children were in the park, she picked it up to put in a bin or dispose of later. She wouldn’t have noticed the colourless, odourless contaminant that had been transferred to her skin. The nerve agent will have started its path of adsorption through her skin and into her bloodstream. Initial symptoms would be minor, building over time and dependent on 2 factors, the amount she was exposed to and the absorption rate through her skin. Only when sufficient was absorbed would she collapse with classic nerve agent poisoning symptoms.
At some stage later, she touched her partner Charlie Rowley, possibly just held his hand. Some of the contaminant would have been transferred but a smaller dose than Dawn had been exposed to but his path to showing symptoms would have been the same. It is possible (I say possible, as there are other scenarios and this is pure hypothesis) that the dose Dawn was exposed to was extremely small and that is why it took time to build up to show symptoms of nerve agent poisoning and that smaller dose, combined with slower absorption is why it took several hours more for Charlie to exhibit symptoms.
If the reports suggesting they were known drug users are accurate, their drug habit could affect the absorption rate, symptoms and treatment they are receiving but I am not a medic and this borders on a speculative comment. Eventually, the nerve agent would build up to an LD50 level where 50% of people with that quantity in their body would die, the amounts we are talking about are extremely small, probably less than a grain of salt.
So, what was missed?
My Blog (https://greyharemedia.com/clear-and-present-danger/), ‘Is there a continuing clear and present danger?’ published on 15th March 2018 and quoted the following weekend in some of the national newspapers, outlined a continuing threat. That threat related to the would-be assassins.
The would-be assassins will have transported the Novichok in a container, they will have worn some form of protective clothing when they applied it and, unless this was left at the crime scene, they will have taken it away with them. That meant that there was Novichok contaminated item or items somewhere away from the immediate crime scene and possibly anywhere in the country.
I fully expected the police, if they had recovered these items, to make a statement like they do on murder-suicide cases along the lines of “we are not looking for anyone else in respect of this crime.” That type of statement didn’t come and I was concerned that this container and the protective clothing could have been discarded over a school fence, in a train station, in the local fast food restaurant, anywhere! I called the MET Police who refused to discuss it.
It seems that after the path the Skripals took that fateful evening had been checked and decontaminated, the threat from potential residual contamination was wished away and the police followed what I call the ostrich effect and hoped. Unfortunately for Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, that hope didn’t protect them.
In defence of the police and other security and emergency services.
Novichok is very, very, difficult to detect as it is designed to evade what is normal nerve agent detectors and whilst very persistent it will degrade, albeit very slowly, over time. It also requires you to come into direct contact with it to get contaminated. So, the chance of getting contaminated, even if the assassins gear was never found, was very low indeed. Maybe Charlie and Dawn should have bought a lottery ticket!
That difficulty in detecting means that swabs, samples, items found have to be sent to Porton Down for testing. Porton Down won’t have a high capacity testing capability, so it takes time to get through the hundreds or thousands of samples collected, a lot of time.
Is Public Health England right in their advice?
In a word, yes, the statistical chance of coming in contact with a contaminated object or area is very small but there is a chance! So they should have caveated their advice. The advice to wash clothes and wipe objects down with baby wipes is sound, it is a matter of chemistry for minute amounts of this substance.
What should be done?
The local council should set up a hotline and app to report discarded items as a specialist collection team sent to recover them quickly. This would be expensive but would leave Salisbury the cleanest city in the country and restore public and tourist confidence. It would be a lot less costly than another city close down!
The police have to find the container used and any protective clothing discarded by the would-be assassins – this is a very small needle in a very large haystack and doing it blindfolded with your arms tied behind your back. It is that easy!
Government scientists should be developing a method for testing for Novichok easily in the field. Of note, only today I was talking to one British Biotech company who have the solution to this problem, the issue is they are a research company and not manufacturers. They just need someone to rapidly develop what they know works, for the current threat. A challenge to the wider biotech world and government research laboratories, drop me a line if you want to know more, but I can’t put more out publicly, unfortunately.
Note: This blog is written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Army Intelligence Officer who was based near Salisbury in the past. If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE