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A Poisoning in England: But Which Poison?

Chemistry doesn’t make the news as often as you might think, and when it does, it’s often in a grim way. Such is the case in the UK right now, with the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury. For those who don’t know the background of the situation, Skripal was an officer in Russian military intelligence who had actually been a longtime asset of the British government. He was arrested and imprisoned, then (after six years) was exchanged in a 3-for-10 swap of spies. At the time of this release. Vladimir Putin gave a televised interview saying, basically, that such traitors were still going to get what was coming to them.

And in such matters he (like others of his kind) is generally a man of his word. Skripal and his daughter (who was visiting from Moscow) were apparently exposed to some sort of nerve agent, which also hospitalized the first policemen to reach the scene (one of whom was seriously affected). He is reported to be conscious and alert at this point, but Skripal and his daughter, although alive as I write, are still unconscious and apparently in bad condition. The parallels with the polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko would seem to be clear. In that latter case, which also took place in public in London, one theory had it that the use of polonium (a rare radioactive element that is difficult to obtain unless you have a nuclear weapons program) was a deliberately obvious calling card. But it’s also been reported that the Russian government did not expect the British physics community  to be able to go so far as to identify the exact locations of its production and processing.

But what was used this time? “Nerve agent” would seem to refer to one of the reactive phosphorus compounds commonly known as nerve gases (although they’re liquids). The most likely of those would probably be either sarin or VX. There are, sadly, considerable quantities of both available in this world (sarin has been used in Syria, atrociously, and perhaps again since I wrote that post). Back in the early days of this blog (2002!) I wrote about various chemical warfare agents, and the posts on the neurotoxins are here and here. They’re both hideously lethal, and the intended message – that you can be killed, horribly, on a shopping center park bench in broad daylight – would be delivered with equal efficiency.The Porton Down research center, at any rate, has plenty of capable people who are highly qualified to deal with identifying just what was used – but was it an organophosphorus compound at all?

Update: identified today (March 12) by the British Prime Minister as one of the “Novichok” agents mentioned in the comments section a few times.

I will say that the case for an unusual nerve agent can be made by the fact that the two victims are still alive. The lethal dose of VX for a typical adult would appear to be skin exposure in the low tens of milligrams. It is known for being particularly persistent in the environment, with a very low vapor pressure, so although the responding police officers could have been exposed through skin contact on a surface, they would probably not have been affected by vapor (unless the agent was administered in some sort of solvent that azeotroped the compound along?). Sarin, though still a liquid, is much more volatile (as the Aum Shinrikyo incident in the Tokyo subway system illustrated, horribly). Something like this would seem more likely to affect bystanders or first responders, even without physical contact. But sarin is also lethal at very low concentrations, which makes the survival of the victims unlikely.

To that point, I have long wondered why only eight people died during the Tokyo attack (some of these were the transit workers who directly handled the bags of sarin that the Aum members had dropped in the subway and punctured with sharpened umbrellas). I have not seen further analysis, but my thought, even at the time, was that the material must have (fortunately) been quite impure, considering that the Aum members were carrying near-liter quantities of liquid.

The Russian services, one assumes, have access to higher-quality material. It would appear that the victims were hit with something unobtrusive and fast-acting, and you would think that anything in that category would also be very likely lethal in short order. So it could be that this was (again) a deliberate choice of poison, because you’d think that if the idea was for the victims to die quickly that that could have been arranged. The organophosphorus poisons fit the fast-unobtrusive-lethal description perfectly, but if one was used, why everyone involved did not die in short order is a mystery. There are fungal, marine, and cyanobacterial poisons that also fit the broad description of “nerve agent”, and it might turn out that one of these is the poison here instead – in which case, it might be that the same “Don’t doubt who did this” message is being sent as with the Litvinenko case. As if any reasonable observer had any doubt to start with.

Update 1: The BBC is apparently reporting, via an unnamed source, that the agent used was not sarin and not VX, but something more “rare”. Which might take us to the sorts of natural-product based compounds mentioned in the last paragraph, although I (fortunately) have no idea about their skin penetration, routes of delivery, etc.

125 comments on “A Poisoning in England: But Which Poison?”

  1. The link for the polonium — “identify the exact locations” — doesn’t work

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Hmm, so it doesn’t. Fixed – thanks!

      1. Sceptical says:

        In regards to your link and certainty on Russian involvement in Litvinenko assassination , the linked article clearly states in point

        21) It is highly probable but not certain.

        Section 31 talks of nuclear forensics that can pinpoint the exact location of enrichment. But to my knowledge this was not conducted or was never released to the public. If you have insight on where I can find that information then would love to see a link. Until you can provide that I suggest to change the name of link to highly probable but not certain.

        1. Derek Lowe says:

          I understand that you have to make a living. But the connection of Russia to the Litvinenko assassination is not a matter of doubt. It was carried out by Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun. The German authorities established that the actual Aeroflot plane seat the latter used on his flight from Moscow was contaminated with polonium. Why don’t you check off your visit to this blog on your time sheet and go troll people on Twitter or something?

          1. Martin V says:

            “It was carried out by Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun.”

            And even if that were true (as the evidence seems to suggest), it does not NECESSARILY implicate Putin – whatever his personal animus toward Litvinenko may have been. To kill someone using Polonium is an astonishingly clumsy way of doing things – unless Putin actually wanted not only future potential ‘traitors’ but also the ENTIRE World to know that HE was giving the orders for assassination. The President of a newly-minted DEMOCRACY would have to be INSANE to do such a thing, frankly. From what I’ve seen of the man, he’s far TOO smart for that. The ONLY people who could have benefited, surely, are those who seek to discredit Putin – as part of the State Department’s continuing (and, frankly, amateurish) crusade against Russia, and the threat it poses to American Hegemony.

            With regard to this Skripal nonsense, the UK Government is hardly in ANY position to adopt an air of Moral Superiority. Or is the bungled attempt to blow up Ghadaffi by MI6 in a different category of Bad Manners from that allegedly demonstrated by the Russian State here ?

            If there’s one thing more aggravating than the Hypocrisy of Governments, it’s the Gullibility of the people they are supposed to be serving.

            WMD, anyone ?

          2. Question everything says:

            You prove my point entirely I must be a payed agent of Russia. You see Russia influence everywhere but without objectivity. I am a tradesman living in Melbourne Australia. This is science mag and I would hope that some robust debate without personal attacks would be forthcoming. You have misrepresented what is contained in the linked article and as to scientific method I ask you to correct your oversight. Now in my personal opinion polonium is not a great poison but is perfect substance to use in framing a government as it left the trail you mentioned all the way to Moscow. Once again I ask where is the forensic analysis on the polonium as laid out in your linked article? Why is it not available to public.
            Also why Britton refuse Russia a sample of the nerve agent?

          3. Russians everywhere says:

            You prove my point entirely I must be a payed agent of Russia. You see Russia influence everywhere but without objectivity. I am a tradesman living in Melbourne Australia. This is science mag and I would hope that some robust debate without personal attacks would be forthcoming. You have misrepresented what is contained in the linked article and as to scientific method I ask you to correct your oversight. Now in my personal opinion polonium is not a great poison but is perfect substance to use in framing a government as it left the trail you mentioned all the way to Moscow. Once again I ask where is the forensic analysis on the polonium as laid out in your linked article? Why is it not available to public.
            Also why West refuse Russia a sample of the nerve agent?

          4. Derek Lowe says:

            “Available to public”. “Why West refuse Russia”. I don’t like to do grammar checking, but these are not normal times.

          5. tangent says:

            I don’t like to do grammar checking, but these are not normal times.

            Though I’d kind of like to see the explanation spun out further, of how Australian English is a dialect that has no articles. (Eaten by dingoes.)

          6. passionlessDrone says:

            It’s amazing, literally amazing, that the Russian trolls have found this spot on the Internet. it was the only place where people just talked. I mean, it was usually above my head. But there was an incredible lack of bullshit. Oh well.

      2. There’s no intelligence only your own says:

        Let us think a little harder about who’s interests this assassination servers. Yes only the Russians could have done it because they have form killing Litvinenko with polonium I was them because they are the only ones with polonium, yes?

        It is well understood that the assassination of Yasser Arafat in 2004 was carried out will polonium.

        Tests carried out by the Institut de Radiophysique (Institute of Radiation Physics) at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland found traces of polonium, a rare, highly radioactive element, on Arafat’s personal belongings, which suggested that there was a high level of polonium inside his body when he died.

        Now it was not in Russian interests to kill Yasser Arafat but it was in Israel’s and they have a nuclear program that has no international scrutiny. Could Israel be unhappy with Russia for any reason?

        1. Some idiot says:

          “Not in Russia’s interests”… why on earth do you say that??? Russia has everything to gain by destabilising the Mddle East… Look what they are doing in Syria…

          Try again…

          No, actually, preferably not…

          1. Martin V says:

            “Russia has everything to gain by destabilising the Mddle East…”

            You mean – exactly what the USA has been doing since at least the late Seventies in Afghanistan ?

            Russia is NO threat to peace ANYWHERE, frankly.

            America, however, is a threat to Peace EVERYWHERE……and has been ever since 1945: just look at the countries bombed, and the regimes overturned since then – simply because they didn’t suit Uncle Sam’s plans for World Hegemony.

          2. Australian tradesmen says:

            Your name definitely reflects your understanding of the geopolitical game.
            The Russians had a strong relationship with Arafat. As for Syria the destabilising force is the western coalition. Syria was looking after over a million refugees from American war in Iraq. Assad is a good leader that managed Syria through this difficult time and if not for the American support for jihadi thugs Syria would have continued its resistance to capitalist imperialism.

  2. Electrochemist says:

    The BBC is reporting that the agent used has been identified but details are being withheld due to the on-going investigation. The BBC report claims that the chemical agent was not VX and is a material that is “rarer than […] Sarin gas…”

  3. A Nonny Mouse says:

    Sarin and VX were ruled out this morning (radio interview), but they would not specify what it was.

    The policeman who was affected was giving CPR, so it was probably mouth to mouth contact. The latest suggestion is that the daughter may have unwittingly brought the agent with her.

  4. Tempest says:

    It should be noted that during the ‘70s and ‘80s the Russians developed their own line of nerve agents, specifically to be difficult to detect with standard NATO gear.

    1. Chad Irby says:

      The Novichok agents would also explain some of the difference in lethality.

      Initial dose for the targets, and lower doses for the responders due to the agent either settling out of the air, or being cleared with ventilation systems. If the building has filters on the ventilation system, check those.

  5. Uncle Al says:

    Delivered near-lethality with chronic impairment also discourages others. Government is an especially adept criminal against those it claims to protect. One hesitates to flag compelling pharma.

  6. Madeline Olsen says:

    Given that a police officer was poisoned some significant time after the initial incident, indicating low volatility of the toxin, my conjecture is that the toxin was a solid, possibly a Tammelin ester.

  7. TWS says:

    Well the experts won’t have far to go – Porton Down is within maybe three or four miles of Salisbury.

    1. Martin V says:

      “Porton Down is within maybe three or four miles of Salisbury.”

      The merest coincidence, of course………………………….(cough, cough, cough……………………….)

      1. TWS says:

        The timing of your comment with the Andrew Marr interview is almost perfect. My inner conspiracy theorist had already considered and dismissed the idea long before it was ever suggested by the ambassador.

        While I admit the close proximity does give me a small niggle in the back of my head, it’s more like ‘did Skripal ever have any connection with Porton Down?’ rather than any suggestion that the UK government would have anything to do with the poisoning. I’m afraid this sort of attack has all the hallmarks of previous attacks carried out by the Russian state (or a deniable asset working on their behalf).

        There’s a lot of ‘it’s the UK / West trying to pin this on Russia’. Even the most suspicious / crazy part of my mind can’t accept that the UK government would so blatantly put so many of its citizens at risk and the idea that this is to ‘distract from Brexit / other political problems’ is simply ridiculous. Brexit fallout may be bad, but there’s no suggestion any member of the EU would start launching cyber attacks (or worse?) after even the hardest of Brexits. I can’t see what the UK government would have to gain from unnecessarily antagonising the Russian state – surely the risks to the UK posed by an angered / more aggressive Russian state are far, far worse than anything the EU would or could do.

        Of course I’m pretty certain I’m wasting my time responding as you’ve either made up your mind or had your mind made up for you……..

  8. Wavefunction says:

    Tabun is less volatile than Sarin and less persistent than VX, properties that would be consistent with a lower mortality rate.

  9. YodelCup says:

    I am surprised you make no mention of the recent Kim Jong Nan assassination with VX nerve agent that was allegedly (and almost certainly) orchestrated by North Korea.

    1. YodelCup says:

      *Kim Jong-nam, apologies.

  10. Anon says:

    @ Yodelcup—Thanks for pointing it out as I was thinking of the same. Except the NK pulled off this stunt in the airport in Malaysia.

  11. Witek says:

    Maybe it wasn`t a chemical at all? Maybe some physical device like a kind of microwave transmitter that boiled their brains?

    1. Pennpenn says:

      One would think such a weapon would leave at least some skin burns on the victims and the effects wouldn’t persist around to affect the first responders and 20-something other (presumably ancilliary?) victims, unless it was some really weird kind of weapon.

      1. Hap says:

        A book a long time ago (fiction) discussed developing a drone with a high-powered (nuclear-powered!) UV laser for (senior) Assad to kill people he didn’t like, among other things. I don’t know if headshots left external burns, but they ought to have left neurological sequelae (before being dead).

    2. fajensen says:

      Tricky to make. Microwaves cases heating, which it slow and leave marks.

      If one wants to kill cells directly with electromagnetism, one needs a field of about 50 kV/cm (assuming what works for sterilising orange juice will work in general 🙂 inside of the head.

      To damage cell walls, the field also has to have high rise-times, which means the spectrum becomes wide, the antenna design becomes tricky, it becomes hard to focus the beam and then power requirements really take off.

      There are solutions to this problem in “time reversal techniques”, – “FOCUSING AN ARBITRARY RF PULSE AT A DISTANCE USING TIME REVERSAL TECHNIQUES” …. but …. this is very technical and relies on a characterisation of the environment that shapes the pulse. It becomes difficult to get the required very high field strengths with a highly-controllable, meaning complicated and sensitive to damage, RF transmitter. “They” could possibly do this kind of thing in, say, Cuba using the next-door room / building as a base for the equipment. Out in the open and with moving target, I don’t think even a nation-state could make an “RF-Gun” work.

  12. Witek says:

    The first suggestion I saw however was 3-Methylfentanyl already linked to the Moscow theater hostage crisis

    1. Istvan Ujvary says:

      To set the record straight: it wasn’t 3-MF but an aerosolized mixture of carfentanil and remifentanil:

  13. SteveM says:

    As an aside, too bad the American MSM won’t allocate even 0.1% of their time to explain the U.S. supported 3-year pulverization of Yemen by erstwhile “ally” Saudi Arabia. To say nothing of the associated mass starvation and cholera epidemic.

    How many Yemenis has Putin killed?

    1. Anonymous says:

      Russian bot?

      1. Gary says:

        Difficult to be critical when you yourself are anonymous

    2. loupgarous says:

      The Soviets racked up a huge body count in northern Yemeni villagers in the 1960s – and this (according to reporter Sterling Seagrave in his book Yellow Rain) was done with nerve agents and experimental biotoxins dropped by Soviet-made aircraft with Egyptian markings.

      As far as US assistance to the Saudi-led campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen, several knowledgeable people in the human rights community are commenting that this assistance is largely overhead photographs and other targeting data which are helpful in minimizing collateral damage to civilians – and give the US leverage on the Saudis to minimize such damage. But nice try deflecting attention from Putin’s neurotoxic fart in Salisbury, trollski.

  14. Isidore says:

    It is reported that multiple people are being treated, what does this suggest about the agent?

  15. luysii says:

    Wonderful folks. So happy all four grandparents got the hell out of that area in the late 1800’s. They are not to be trusted except by our FBI who uses unverified Russian sources to get FISA warrants to spy on US citizens.

  16. Hap says:

    I assume that Putin thinks his opponents are unable or unwilling to respond proportionately, and so that he can do whatever he wants because nothing will happens to his interests. (If it’s an accurate supposition, then we have a problem. If it’s not an accurate supposition, then it seems past time to provide evidence to the contrary.

    No one likes having their authority questioned, especially when it’s all they have.

    1. Isidore says:

      What exactly would be a “proportional” response, poison one of theirs?

      1. Hap says:

        I’m not sure. I wouldn’t want to play tit-for-tat, because becoming the monster isn’t a good solution. Naked pictures of Putin cavorting with friends would be nice. Alternatively, you could publish something incriminating or embarrassing on the agents traded back, though if it’s bad enough, that’s just outsourcing the violence to them. I’m sure if the British could arrest the poison delivery system they would (if they’re not already dead). Something aimed at the people who make or deliver the poison would be appropriate, preferably inhibiting their ability to do so, but that tends to be an act of war and and thus seems unacceptable.

        I don’t think we have good enough relations with them to discuss this over tea, unfortunately.

        1. Wavefunction says:

          And I think there are good grounds right now for them not wanting to have tea with us either (although I would still take us over them).

      2. Dan says:

        Two obvious possibilities present themselves. There is a large number of Russian “mercenaries” in Syria and Britain has had Tornadoes perform bombing runs there. “Accidental” off-target bombs, or an SAS op in Syria are the first possibility. The second would be the damaging/destruction of one of the Backfire bomber that have been playing cat-and-mouse on the British border. (A few gun rounds are unlikely to kill anyone, but would certainly get their attention and might bring down the aircraft.) The first would be easier to execute because it doesn’t require the Russians to cooperate by sending a bomber. The second could have the salutary effect of decreasing provocative Russian air force actions across the board.

        1. fajensen says:

          How is helping jihadists and terrorists ever in our interests?

      3. loupgarous says:

        Western doctrine (like US Nuclear Posture Reviews of the late 1990s/early 2000s) after the outlawing of chemical and biological weapons was “a gas is a germ is a nuke”, but that’s unlikely to be relevant – Obama repudiated that doctrine back around 2014 for the US, and rightly so.

        My guess would be things with equally plausible deniability targeting Russian interests, in addition to amplification of economic sanctions against Russia. The US is probably obliged to help Britain with that under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Charter (the NATO treaty). Which brings USAF Cyber Command into play, along with other assets no one knows about.

        It’s not like the Russians and Chinese aren’t very actively on the cyber offense. Perhaps it’s time to show them that there are prices to be paid that aren’t measured in human lives, but which can make life in Russia sufficiently unpleasant that it would change Russians’ contentment with their current leadership. They tried (ineptly, for the most part) to interfere with US politics in a big way. Maybe it’s time to show them how professionals do that job.

  17. Isidore says:

    If Russian government officials are found to have been implicated the British are threatening to boycott the Soccer World Cup, which will take place in Russia this summer. Given their performance in the previous several such event this is not much of a threat.

    1. Hap says:

      But what if the US boycotts? That’ll make a big impression!

      1. Not a Russian troll says:

        The US, Italy and Netherlands are all boycotting the World Cup.

        1. Hap says:

          I don’t think they’ll be that disappointed. We’re not a laughingstock, but I don’t think they were afraid of our soccer play, either. I need a sarcasm character.

    2. Chemist turned Banker says:

      Talk of a British boycott refers to delegations of officials, not the team, as we don’t compete as a British team. Uniquely, we have four opportunities to crash and burn due to the Home Countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland competing separately.

  18. luysii says:

    Amazingly, the following book review appeared today in Nature

    Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia Raymond A. Zilinskas & Philippe Mauger Lynne Rienner: 2018.

    Regimes of all types throughout history have sought to harness science for war. As a result, otherwise beneficial technology can become ‘dual-use’. Biological weapons are among the starker examples: research meant to save lives is used to take them. Now, in the run up to elections in Russia, and with concerns mounting about the nation’s role globally, biological-weapons specialists Raymond Zilinskas and Philippe Mauger deliver Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia.

    Bioweapons research in Russia and its environs extends back as far as 1928. It took off in the 1970s, for example through the infamous clandestine Biopreparat network. There, the Soviets weaponized pathogens including the smallpox and Marburg viruses and the anthrax bacterium Bacillus anthracis. Zilinskas and Mauger focus on the years 2012–16, when political tensions between Russia and the West intensified markedly. Concerned by apparent shifts in Russia’s pronouncements and actions regarding dual-use activities related to biosecurity, Zilinskas and Mauger write that they wish to “move the discussion over Russian compliance concerns to the public sphere”, where an evaluation based on evidence becomes possible.

    They investigate — solely through open sources — the current Russian position. They especially dig into issues such as “genetic weapons” (bioweapons aimed at damaging DNA, potentially of specific individuals or groups) and biodefence research. Their underlying intention throughout seems to be to examine the likelihood that the Russian government is itself willing to engage in banned activities related to biowarfare agents. The book thus becomes a technical-scientific detective story.

    Zilinskas and Mauger cover a lot of ground, from Russia’s current biodefence infrastructure to its diplomatic and propagandistic activities in the context of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). There is plenty of suggestive material. They show that, at least according to internal doctrinal documents, Russia’s ostensible rejection of new research on bioweapons is equivocal. At the same time, the Putin regime has ramped up its disinformation campaign aimed at insinuating that the United States is not complying with the BWC, thus providing a possible pretext for its own research into banned areas. This is occurring, the authors remind us, against the backdrop of a largely intact biosecurity infrastructure (encompassing Biopreparat, multiple military facilities and other entities). Meanwhile, the civilian biotechnology sector is floundering, and so might become vulnerable to co-option by the military.

    Readers expecting a smoking gun (or festering Petri dish) will be disappointed. The authors do not give any information about specific pathogens or tools under development. What they do present is a meticulous, exhaustively researched and extensively cited investigation. The sources on which Zilinskas and Mauger draw range from arcane technical publications (such as a 2008 military tender for infrastructure improvements) to unofficial propaganda, satellite data, official pronouncements and published interviews; one is with the former head of Russia’s military Biological Defense Department, Valentin Yevstigneev.

    Zilinskas and Mauger apply innovative methods to routine data. For instance, they cross-reference lists of institutes with publications by scientists at those institutes; this yields illuminating inferences, such as signs that one body might have shifted from above-board scientific publishing to classified work. They also usefully explain the background to treaties and protocols, and conscientiously distinguish between solid fact and their own opinion throughout.

    The book has weak points. Although it is well-written and engaging, the detail can become ponderous: more than 100 pages are devoted to military and civilian facilities connected to Russian biodefence. A more judicious use of examples, with the remainder relegated to appendices, would have been preferable to repetitive lists.

    The book is also short on synthesis. Like the proverbial blind men describing an elephant, the many chapters answer distinct parts of the central question but fail to tell a coherent story. For example, Zilinskas and Mauger do not explicitly link the Russian establishment’s apparent growing willingness to research “weapons based on new physical principles” — which is likely to include biological agents — to its increasingly vehement accusations that the United States is engaging in dubious biological research. Instead, the authors’ vague policy prescriptions to the US government seem out of place.

    Outright allegations might have undermined the authors’ carefully marshalled facts and dispassionate analysis. But this indeterminacy is like watching a prosecutor present a stack of circumstantial evidence, then walk out of the courtroom without delivering a closing argument. The authors’ case might be circumstantial, but it is a strong one. A forceful concluding chapter —with appropriate caveats about speculation versus fact — might have done the reader a great service. (My guess — and it is just a guess, because there is no hard evidence — is that Russia is capable of working on any pathogen, with any technique, from CRISPR gene-editing to gain-of-function research.)

    Ultimately, these are minor quibbles regarding this trove, which will be new to the world outside Russia. The scholarship and cogent analysis in Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia are formidable, as rigorous as any assessment of the country’s biological-warfare capability by the world’s best intelligence agencies. The book is overall a fascinating reflection of the complex web of interests and institutions that have converged to drive Russia’s current orientation towards biosecurity. As tensions between the West and Russia grow, questions are bound to arise about Russia’s capacities and proclivities for biological weapons. Governments, the non-proliferation community, scientists and institutions involved in international collaborative research should begin looking for their answers here.

    Nature 555, 162-163 (2018)

    1. Isidore says:

      The book “Biohazard” by Ken Alibek, the former Deputy Director of the Soviet Union’s Biopreparat and since 1992 a resident and citizen of the United State, is most informative on this topic.

      1. Hap says:

        I assume Alibek’s book only covers to about 1992? (when he left the ex-Soviet Union), though he’d be a good source to review publicly available information on bioweapons. He probably is doing it for three-letter agencies, though, and so can’t moonlight.

        1. Isidore says:

          Correct, he wrote about his own experiences, at least in the edition I have. BTW, according to Wikipedia he has been a visiting university professor in the biological sciences at his native Kazakstan for the past several years, while maintaining his US citizenship.

          1. Hap says:

            As long as they don’t try to shoehorn him again.

      2. Wavefunction says:

        “Biohazard” is great, but from what I know the most comprehensive book on the Soviet biological weapons program is by Leitenberg and Zilinskas. Dry as a bone in places though.

        1. Hap says:

          I will try and snag it through my library – it looks, urm, interesting.

        2. loupgarous says:

          It was written by a military microbiologist. You were expecting maybe Clive Cussler?

          I read Biohazard not long after it came out, and found it very easy reading. And scary, especially the part about Gorbachev ordering ICBM warheads to be filled with biological weapons aimed at the US and UK. Perestroika, my ass.

  19. dearieme says:

    CIA false flag.

  20. An old man says:

    Early work, Fidder, et al. Chem Res Tox, 15, 582 (2002), reported phosphylation of serum butyrlcholinesterase from a serum sample from Tokoyo. Early work on MS/MS of proteins. information from work of serum samples should provide information if the toxin is a phosphoryl derivative.

  21. milkshake says:

    if organophosphate was the poison, it does not have to be a state actor, these things are not hard to make in a small amount, you don’t need a nuclear reactor, just a synthetic lab with access to NMR, and few weeks of time. The structures and even the approximate SAR of organophosphates are available on the web. The fact that they identified the toxin rapidly by analysis makes me believe that it was not really that rare actually, only just that Scotland Yard did not hear of its use previously, but they are not toxicologists after all.

    More damning would be some purified obscure alkaloid like anatoxin-a (VFDF) that was known to be stockpiled in Russia

    1. kriggy says:

      How would you get the precursors for the compounds ? (rather rethorical question, not that I am not interested but it might be better to not discuss it over the internet). They are controlled substances. While academic lab might be able to get some of them, its definitely not easy.

      1. milkshake says:

        I will skip the details but the precursors are in any stockroom of a normal synthetic lab, and it is only two steps to potent organophosphates. And about 4 steps if you want VX, VR or Sarin. The difficult part is to manufacture these agents on a multikilo process scale because of the safety issues, but the chemistry is old and mundane; If you only need a gram of material, with enough time and motivation even a bright undergrad can manage to make these, in the university teaching lab

        1. Derek Lowe says:

          This is unfortunately accurate. Making the more simple nerve agents is not synthetically difficult, not does it require particularly exotic starting materials or reagents. What’s more difficult – very difficult indeed, if you’re trying to do this without proper facilities – is making them without killing yourself in the process.

          1. milkshake says:

            I don’t think it should be too difficult to avoid accidental poisoning when working with just gram quantity of organophosphate nerve agents – you would use exactly the same technique like when working with atrociously smelly compounds, you would use gloves and thoroughly decontaminate everything before taking it out of the fume hood. Obviously an improvised garage lab would not suffice, and bad working habits would give you something more than just a headache.

          2. Wavefunction says:

            I remember that C&EN article from a decade or two back when James Tour ordered most of the stuff needed to make these toxins from Aldrich and then photographed himself sitting next to enough piles of the stuff to take out an entire country. I wonder if the laws for procurement have changed since then.

          3. Nekekami says:

            Derek, the most difficult and risk-filled part at this scale will always be the delivery, both in terms of preparing the mechanism(You don’t want 200 finicky steps just to load the agent into the cane, umbrella, inhalator, spray bottle or whatever you use, you don’t want it leaking etc), and the delivery itself(you don’t want it blowing back in your face etc. In that light, given a decent reasonably modern lab, the chemistry itself is not that risky, given a competent chemist.

            Speaking of delivery methods, the substandard delivery method and the nature of the target areas is why the Aum Shinrikyuo attack had such a low number of casualties for its attempted scale.

    2. Derek Lowe says:

      Anatoxin was just one of the things I had in mind in that last paragraph – that or a shellfish/reef natural product, although the poisoning of responders/bystanders would seem to make that less likely (and I’m not sure about administration, either).

  22. KyleG says:

    Sure, blame everything on the Russians.

    Hillary lost, get over it.

    1. Isidore says:

      I think that the poisoning is on the Russians, although unless proven conclusively that it was dictated from above there is the possibility that some elements of the Russian secret services took it upon themselves to punish the spy and defector, it’s known to happen. In fact this is more likely in my opinion, after the Litvinenko affair, and regardless of whether that also was initiated by higher authority or whether it was carried out by lower level functionaries of the Russian secret services on their own initiative, the Russian government would not have engaged in something as blatant as this, and in England of all places. Say what you want about Putting but he is not stupid.

      1. Hap says:

        That’s kind of risky, though – unless you think you’ll get a wink and nod from your superiors, you might end up as a test subject for some new weapon. I don’t imagine Putin likes egg on his face.

      2. tt says:

        From Putin’s perspective, this is a low risk, high reward proposition. It sends a pretty clear message to his “enemies” (especially as he publicly threaten this guy) and he knows all too well that there will not be any long term consequence to him or his regime. Sure, the UK could boycott some stuff, kick out some Russians from the UK, or (maybe) threaten some slap on the wrist sanctions…but that’s about it. Putin is playing a different game with his own rules (i.e. he has none) whereas the U.S. and the west are doing what they always have…lots of rhetoric and condemnation with no action. He’s the richest, most powerful, and most untouchable (from a legal sense) person in the world and is accountable to no one…so why would it surprise anyone that he ordered yet another assassination, who is going to do anything about it?

        1. David Edwards says:

          Indeed, given the manner in which Russian domestic politics is, in effect, a real life Game Of Thrones, keeping domestic rivals in their place and maintaining his strongman persona would be a pretty high priority for Putin. He’s willing to do this even if the actions taken result in considerable international diplomatic furore, because he cares more about consolidating his position at home, than what outsiders think of him. In any case, maintaining the strongman persona at home also adds extra armour on the international front, even though he doesn’t really need that, given that he’s in command of a very large military with a large nuclear arsenal.

          Quite simply, Putin doesn’t care about the diplomatic consequences of pulling off something like this (and for that matter, neither do the assorted hard men waiting in the wings to be successors). The fact that he can get away with ordering an assassination on the soil of another nuclear-armed state, gives him the ability to tell those other hard men to think very carefully before challenging him on any front. Which is ultimately what matters to him. He’ll simply ride out the ballyhoo, and also take advantage of the fact that he now has his very own ‘inside man’ in the White House.

          In short, if you want someone who excels at playing chess with live hand grenades, you choose a Russian.

      3. Laurence Mardon says:

        One complicating fact (in assigning blame) is that the lines, in Russia, between the security services & the many, many corrupt oligarchs are pretty blurred … there was an article yesterday in the Brit newspaper ‘The Independent’ which reported that Mr. S was working for various non-gov ‘intelligence’ outfits (tho no connection w the famous Mr. Steele!), possibly investigating these same, rather ill-tempered, oligarchs.
        I just don’t see where it would be in Mr. Putin’s interest — a bit over a week before the election there — to do this now: support for Rus sanctions is steadily declining in Europe. Why stoke the fires?

    2. Hap says:

      Um, we’re not good at reading comprehension, are we? There is a past history of killings of ex-Russians outside their borders (back to Markov in the 70’s), and the asset wasn’t publicly threatened by the US. Israel has been known for this, too, but, he didn’t have anything to do with them (unless they were looking to frag the Russians, but that seems like a high-risk act for little gain – it might help make Assad’s position less stable, but you don’t know what you’d get instead). The US or Britain could have done it to tar the Russians, but it would have some negative effects for us (getting assets is harder if getting caught might mean that either side could/would kill the asset), and probably not enough benefit (the murder of Litvinenko ended up as a lot of sound and fury and a dead person and not much else).

      1. Derek Lowe says:

        Hap’s right: the Litvinenko case alone (and its historical connection to the Markov assassination) make the connection highly plausible. Add to that the number of Putin’s enemies inside Russia who have died in various car crashes, sudden falls, unsolved robberies, and so on, and no intelligent observer can just dismiss the idea that this was a Russian job.

        Unless you’re ust trolling for fun, which in cases like this is a behavior that I have trouble understanding.

        1. Isidore says:

          Litvinennko was employed by the oligarch Boris Berezhovsky, in fact Litvinenko was in Berezhovsky’s pay even while he was an officer of the Russian security service, the FSB. After Litvinenko ran afoul of the FSB, Berezovsky facilitated his move to Britain. Berezhovsky had many enemies among other Russian oligarchs and it is likely that Litvinenko, employed as he was in Berezovsky’s private army, had run ins with the private armies of other oligarchs (all this is detailed in Ben Mezrich’s book “Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs―A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder”). As was pointed out, the lines between the Russian government security services and the private security contingents of Russian oligarchs are blurred and the revolving doors between them many, so it is not beyond consideration that Litvinenko was killed without official sanction by the Russian government and nobody should be surprised if no Putin fingerprints are found anywhere near Skripal père (“Never write if you can speak, never speak if you can nod, never not if you can wink”, as Boston politician Martin Lomasney advised more than a century ago).

        2. Shazbot says:

          Don’t forget ‘Trolling for Money.’ This could be a pretty good example of a paid pro-Russian blog commentor. It follows the standard playbook of ‘Deny everything, Change the subject, and Blame the Victim. Some of the denials are pretty obviously false, but it’s all beside the point, as the point is to distract people from the case at hand and drag the discussion away from the facts and into the murk.

        3. eugene says:

          I can easily dismiss it in light of the current hysteria and Russophobia which is rampant in America. That’s why I tend not to automatically believe much about accusations of ‘evil Putin’ or ‘perfidious Russia’ if it comes from an American or a Brit. Maybe in ten years when the hysteria dies down and if the world isn’t destroyed in a nuclear war, I’ll give it more credence. The Litvinenko evidence where I’m willing to believe it was Russia wasn’t publicly released, and this assassination (where the person is still alive) is three weeks before the Russian election, and the world cup later this year, which would mean that Putin is not a rational actor.

          The dozens of ‘Putin’s enemies’ killed in Russia is an empty throwaway that when you look at it more closely, become difficult to prove. Even that buzzfeed link provided in the next comment which you liked a lot, has been debunked very well. In general, Buzzfeed is not a good source of well-researched or objective material.

          I’ve been more skeptical of these narratives of late because almost every Russian prof I meet in North America at a meeting has been telling me that life has improved a lot and the research environment is getting better back home and some of them are also becoming more patriotic (when they had too much to drink). Also, it’s not like information is restricted in Russia: they translate a lot of foreign articles that are hostile to them into Russian so that the locals can see it and it has been driving a wave of popularity for Putin (the service is called ‘inosmi’) and the internet is generally a lively place of discussion. I met a postdoc who said he got a grant and was going back to Moscow to start up a lab and wasn’t even thinking of staying in the US. The more you tell these people, and that includes me starting from two years ago, that Russia is evil and Putin is responsible for the killings without attempting to go through the evidence and arguing from an emotional standpoint, the more you lose us. That’s why I’m not automatically blaming ‘evil Putin’ for this one.

          I’m actually pretty disappointed that you didn’t use your scientific training to take this apart, but went in with a pre-formed conclusion. Especially since we don’t have any publicly available evidence. If this ends up being similar to the Russian submarine in Sweden fiasco a year from now, can I expect some sort of ‘mea culpa’? If it turns out that Putin did say: “you know what, I want to poison some useless former British spy who did more than half his sentence and who I pardoned three weeks before elections and 100 days before the World Cup so that the Brits can see my fingerprints all over it, and maybe turn on the Russophia a bit in their media and cancel the World Cup, because I’m a crazy mafia kleptocrat and I roll like that”, then I’ll apologize.

          1. Derek Lowe says:

            Eugene, all I can say is that it seems that there are a lot of suspicious deaths among journalists, businessmen, and politicians who oppose Putin (and corruption in Russia in general). This is not some invisible-submarine hysteria, not with dead and dying bodies strewn around the place. But it’s safe to say that neither of us will convince the other one about this point.

          2. loupgarous says:

            I’m with Derek on this one. Sloppy hits on Russian dissidents and defectors with radiotoxins (Po-210) mostly made in Russia and Novichok agents not known to have been made anywhere else aren’t plausibly the work of anyone but Russia. Russia’s got a long history of trying lethal chemical weapons out on civilians and even sharing them with (at the time) friendly countries’ assassins (the Bulgarians hit Georgi Markov with a ricin-firing weapon disguised as an umbrella supplied by the KGB) and air forces (Soviet aircraft with Egyptian markings dropped a variety of poisons, including nerve agents and possibly experimental biotoxins on Yemeni villages in the early 1960s, and Soviet troops apparently experimented with the fentanyls, nerve agents and other toxins in Afghanistan). The UK’s chem/bio defense people in Porton Down identified two fentanyl derivatives from clothing and urine of survivors of the 2003 Barricade Theater hostage crisis rescue, in which 16% of those exposed to the incapacitant gas used by Russian special operations troops died.

            CIA and the US armed forces once had similar capabilities, but if they used them, it’s not reported (apart from a CNN/Time report of Admiral Thomas Moorer’s statements about sarin was reportedly being used in Vietnam – which he, CNN, and Time retracted soon afterward), and they certainly weren’t as promiscuous with them as the Soviets have been over the decades.

            It’s plausible that resurgent Russia has a resurgent and very active chemical weapons capability in violation of their commitments not to manufacture or possess such weapons. What Western governments used to consider “special weapons” to be used only under severe provocation and have destroyed voluntarily have been used by the Russians and Soviets on inconvenient civilians – and are still being used in that way. This is more than an attempted assassination and a cruel chemical attack likely to cause permanent injuries to the victims. It’s the Russian government demonstrating their contempt for the rule of law on several levels.

          3. Pelle Storck says:

            Russia denied any knowledge of submarines in the Stockholm archipelago. That is until one run aground, then it was a “navigation mistake”. I have navigated there for many years and to get that far in not knowing exactly where you are is impossible. So russian subs in our waters is a well known fact.

  23. DDTea says:

    The cases of Litvinenko and Georgi Markov have been mentioned, but it’s worth noting that there have been 14 additional suspicious deaths of Russian dissidents on British soil in the past decade alone, [1] which British Home Secretary Amber Rudd is now (finally) urging be reinvestigated. [2] Evidently, the UK is in a compromised position when it comes to Russia, but how deep that goes is unclear.

    MIlkshake and Derek are correct: synthesizing gram scale quantities of nerve agents is trivial.
    But that point is somewhat irrelevant. To put our minds at ease about the “activation barrier” for a chemical attack, an estimated ~500 kg of Sarin were used in Ghouta on August 23, 2013; and on the order of 100 kg was used in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017. This has been modeled [3] in a study by the US Department of Defense, which found that 10 kg of sarin, released in an ideal manner, would contaminate 0.01 km^2 with lethal effects, leading to ~50 deaths in the average American city; 100 kg would lead to ~500 deaths; and 1000 kg would lead to 10,000 deaths. In other words, there’s a “break even” point for the investment in nerve agent that’s far beyond grams or even kg’s.

    Confined spaces reduce the scales necessary, but these are points to give us some grounding. No more than a few grams of high explosive would, a few grams of nerve agent will not cause significant harm unless it is delivered very efficiently. Further making chemical attacks unlikely is that there are usually lower “activation energy pathways” to reach the same endpoint: death, destruction, mayhem for whatever your cause is.

    On relevant scales, the challenge of nerve agent manufacture goes beyond the significant hurdles of procuring the precursors, synthesis, or even safe synthesis; it’s a challenge of *continuous* manufacture and storage. This is especially true for sarin or related fluorophosphonates, which have a limited shelf life if not rigorously purified. Binary agents are one way to overcome this, but this introduces its own technical challenges and inefficiencies.

    Aum Shinrikyo had the capacity to cause significantly more harm, as Derek alluded to. Fortunately, they were hindered by their bumbling incompetence. They did not use an efficient dispersal mechanism (e.g., a small burster charge) to aerosolize the agent either in the Tokyo subway or at Matsumoto.

    Returning to the discussion of Skripal, it has already been disclosed that the agent was an organophosphorus compound and that is “rarer” than sarin or VX, which have been in the news in recent years. I interpret that to mean it’s not even Tabun, Soman, or other common analogs. It probably doesn’t have a brand name. In Syria in OPCW Fact Finding Mission reports, details of the agent and its characteristic impurities were revealed from environmental samples (soil, clothing, paint chips, bomb debris). The same will be true here. Porton Down is very savvy with this sort of investigation. Chemical signature attribution may even reveal details of the synthetic route [5].

    One notable feature, though: Skripal and his daughter are both still comatose. Syria, tragically, has given us many public case studies about nerve agent exposure. Victims from those attacks regained consciousness rather quickly–within a day. Instead, this sounds like other well-known cases of exposure to a V-agent, where victims have remained unconscious for two weeks. [6] Interestingly, in those cases, there seems to be a latent period (few minutes) where the victim is conscious and walking before collapsing.

    So taken together, here are the open questions to me: where were Sergei and Yiulia Skripal exposed? If it was in their house, then this agent seems to have a long onset time. If it was on the park bench, then the agent is fast acting but persistent enough to cause secondary contamination a half hour later. It’s nonetheless volatile. The affected police officer and medical workers reported “itching eyes” and wheezing–typical for vapor exposure. They probably had a massive headache and nausea as well.

    We’ll wait and see what the agent is. In any case, this has dark implications for the Chemical Weapons Convention. Nobody seriously doubts that Russia is behind this. Russia has responded, through its state media, by warning “traitors” not to settle in Europe. [7] They’ve deployed their trolls again. You can fish for them: say RUSSIA NERVE AGENT SKRIPAL MH17 three times, and you’ll get messages about Hillary Clinton and No-Go Zones. All while officially denying any involvement.

    But as everyone knows, don’t believe anything until the Kremlin denies it.

    [3] “Terrorism, Asymmetric Warfare, and Chemical Weapons,” Anthony H. Courdesman, published by Center for Strategic and International Studies, Feb. 14, 2001.
    [5] See, e.g., a)Fraga, C. G.; Pérez Acosta, G. A.; Crenshaw, M. D.; Wallace, K.; Mong, G. M.; Colburn, H. A. Impurity Profiling to Match a Nerve Agent to Its Precursor Source for Chemical Forensics Applications. Analytical Chemistry 2011, 83 (24), 9564. ; b) {Holmgren, #43}

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Thanks for this comment – a lot of interesting and disturbing details there, and I appreciate the references as well. Your point about delivery is well taken.

      I hadn’t considered the possibility of a delayed onset, I have to say. Another point (around the “rare nerve agent” detail is that if this was one of the newer Russian-produced organophosphorus agents (the so-called “Novichok” compounds:, that would be an instantly recognizable calling card, for better or worse.

    2. peroxisome says:

      There is an awful lot here that isn’t clear. Although DDTea says that it has already been disclosed that the agent was an organophosphorus compound, I have only seen the description that a ‘nerve agent’ was used.

      The nerve gases are famous for having a very fast onset of effect, and high doses lead to death via paralysis of the diaphragm, i.e. mainly a peripheral effect. The Syrian examples, inter alia, are consistent with this.
      I have to say that the story about vx poisoning in Japan needs some caution. The human dermal LD50 for VX is 10 milligrammes ( The idea that you can spray on grammes of VX and someone survives for two weeks… Issues about what exactly was sprayed on, and the competence of the Aum chemists, must surely arise.
      But in terms of the Salisbury story, there is something strange. If they were exposed on the park bench to the massive quantities of nerve gas implied, this is consistent with them both immediately collapsing. It’s surprising they have survived (for sarin, time to death after inhalation can be 1-10 minutes and it’s surprising that there wasn’t more collateral damage to the people that treated them and attended at the park bench, from contact/ vapour exposure to residual nerve gas. The week long coma isn’t what you expect from a peripheral effect.
      If they were exposed before hand, there are also problems. Slow onset for nerve gases is downright strange. How could they both be exposed hours beforehand, and then both collapse suddenly at the same time ? It’s also that little bit trickier to reconcile with affecting other people.

      There is clearly a lot of information which we do not have about these poisonings, including clinical findings and analytical chemistry, which would resolve the issue. As is, there is an awful lot which seems strange in the information we have. I am not yet convinced that it is a ‘nerve gas’.

      Parenthetically, nerve gases can persist as a liquid, but still have sufficient vapour to cause problems. E.g. VX has a vapour pressure of 0.09 Pa, but you only need 50 mg/m3 for a minute to get a human LC50. Contact exposure is also a problem.

      1. loupgarous says:

        Good point. But I don’t think Theresa May would have mentioned “Novichok agents” unless the UK chem/bio warfare labs in Porton Down had actually identified them. Porton Down has the gear, and worked with nerve agents throughout most of its institutional existence.

        A sublethal dose of a Novichok agent is the most plausible explanation for this, given that the British aren’t likely to have botched the analysis, and that others in the area such as the English police officer were also affected. It doesn’t mean that it was intentionally sublethal.

    3. milkshaken says:

      1. Wheezing and itching eyes of the policeman – this still can be a symptom of contact poisoning through skin, for example because of handling contaminated clothes. “Itchy eyes” can be just combination of lacrymation+miosis. Problems with breathing would be happening at the same time. UK team has been concentrating on the cemetery grave stones, namely gravestone of Skripal late wife, and memorial stone of his late son. This does not sound like vapor exposure

      2. Instead of VX nerve agent, the Eastern Bloc most common veaponized nerve agent is VR, an isomer of VX. Hence “more rare than VX” at least in the west, but not more difficult to make than VX for one chemist in a normal synthetic lab. My bets would be on VR specifically, because so many Warsaw pact government had it in their arsenals. The stability of VX and VR is excellent, they don’t need a stabiliser unlike Sarin. (The fun part – the manufacture of DIC and DCC coupling agents in the West was made cheap by big orders from military –
      because these are the actual stabilizers added to Sarin)

      3. Even Novichok binary is not that hard to make, for a false flag operation or a non-state actor. So it is not a Russian “calling card” like polonium. Careful trace impurity profile analysis and isotope analysis may help to narrow down the source geographically, to the point you can say “this is fully consistent with what we have seen before with material made in Russia” (as opposed to south-east Asia or North America) or “these ethyls look just like being made from corn fermentation-derived ethanol” (as opposed to from ethylene obtained by cracking)

  24. Glen says:

    It seems to me that the real technical challenge is not creating the agent, but rather devising a delivery method that limits casualties to a small number. Even a single hollow pellet, delivered paint ball style, would likely seriously injure everyone in the room.

    A sealed food or drink container seems a likely source. Though I don’t recall ever seeing test results, I’m certain that nerve agents would be very toxic if swallowed. CPR on a contaminated mouth would be a viable way to injure a first-responder. Vapors from the open container would of course be toxic to others in the room.

    Identification of a delivery system would be a good indication of the resources behind the operation.

    Historically, Russian/soviets have used toxic food, a toxic spray to the face, and even cadmium-doped Belomorekanal cigarettes. All of these seem a great deal more bother than the common tools of simple assault.

    1. Hap says:

      Supposedly one of the Chechnian military leaders was killed via a poisoned letter (from World’s Most Dangerous Places, 5th ed?), so contact poisons are in (though this might not be one).

      1. loupgarous says:

        …and most of the OP cholinesterase inhibitors are lethal by skin contact at some dosage (the liquid ones, at any rate, and ISTR that some Novichoks are solid at STP.

  25. GW says:

    Come on, it must be patently obvious to everyone by now that this was a Russian attack. One in a long line of such attacks, as has already been noted. The Russian troll factory is out in force (even on this page, lol?) to add insult to injury and confuse the simple-minded. No wonder Russia has such lousy GDP if the FSB is employing intelligent people as trolls.

    Reports suggest the toxin was present in the house, where the PC was affected. I read one theory that the daughter may even have brought the toxin into the house inadvertently – perhaps a poisoned gift?

    One report in the Telegraph links Skripal to the Trump dossier. To the armchair observer it seems to stretch credibility that he would have no connection at all to the dossier, so how this is not headline news is mind-boggling.

    Now a health supremo is suggesting that worried locals (no more than 500, no need to panic) if in the pub or restaurant at particular times, may want to wash their clothes “preferably in the washing machine”, since they have found traces of the toxin at those locations.

    An unending stream of questions now spring to mind
    a) who washes their clothes by hand ?
    b) is washing by hand unadvisable because, er, toxin on your hand?
    c) so, what about toxin staying in the washing machine?
    d) if it may be on your clothes might it not be a good idea to have a long shower too?
    e) How about shaving one’s hair, while we’re at it?
    f) a few days have passed already; shouldn’t bed sheets, towels etc also be washed?
    g) how effective is washing? is detergent + water the best solvent?
    h) what about breastfeeding mothers?
    i) what kind of advice is “you should probably” supposed to be?
    j) would it really be that hard to test locals for traces of neurotoxin?

    1. GW says:

      Apparently this neurotoxin also breaks down in the presence of moisture.

      1. Michael Glasspool says:

        Correct me if I am wrong, this nerve agent also breaks down in the presence of oxygen alongside the aforementioned moisture. I would also surmise the investigating team cannot determine the exact time of exposure and that of the delivery and/or transportation of the agent . Also, historically the isotope for the Polonium 210 in the Litvinenko case may have come from a Canadian lab which reported the theft some time before the U.K 2006 incident.

        1. milkshake says:

          yes you are wrong. Oxygen in air has nothing to do with the breakdown of Novichok. Also it looks like there are two classes of Novichok agents. Many of them are moisture sensitive but not dramatically so, they live long enough (persistence time in open environment measured in hours or even days).

          Phosgenoxime fluorophosphates is the kind of agents very well suitable for binary (that was reported for weaponized Novichok) and are related to older 90-12 series just as mentioned in the reports. Whereas the phosphoramidine and guanidine class would be more likely the second series described as exceedingly potent if swallowed, fairly water soluble, solid, and some examples of it described as completely water stable.

          1. Michael Glasspool says:

            Thank you very much for correcting me. I can see by your comments on this site you’re an expert in the area of bio-chemical agents and their delivery. I was probably thinking (non-expert) along the lines of binary-sarin and the binary delivery methods, instead of the Novichok-5, Novichok-7 series. I would state clearly that the delivery, the amount and the storage will be key aspects of the British investigation.

            I would like to note though, has my comment on the missing isotopes from a Canadian medical facility gone unnoticed? At least from my perspective, the Brits were probably not looking overseas.

            Thank you again.

        2. Some idiot says:

          As far as I understand it, the British investigators could unambiguously determine the source of the polonium on the basis of the purity profile.

          1. Michael Glasspool says:

            As far as I know, there’s no publicly available information on where the isotopes originated in that 2006 British investigation. During that time period and up to the date immediately preceding the death, in and around, November 1, 2006 of Litvinenko, there was an incident in Canada of a medical facility reporting a theft of isotopes. I hope that’s clear enough to warrant a further investigation, especially of development, storage and transportation of these types of agents when it comes to minute details, binding and delivery even if a suspect is sought after.

          2. Some idiot says:

            Michael (or whoever you are), try Wikipedia. That has references and sources. I feel that at best you are trying to be disengenuous.

          3. Michael Glasspool says:

            Yes, my name is Michael just as it states. At least I am not hiding behind some mindless name tag. And, it’s disingenuous thank you. On that note, if you follow the lead investigators trail based on the impurities (or garbage) found it turns out had led to a dead end and that the impurities probably could’ve been produced somewhere else. In my case experience the professionals are quite adept at making it look like someone else performed the killing, or criminal activity leading up to the event. I think may retire my comments due to blow back.

          4. Some idiot says:

            Michael, you say “according to my experience “… what is your experience exactly? Mine is as a process chemist. I am a regular on this blog, but since I cannot recall you contributing before, I would be interested in your background.

          5. Michael Glasspool says:

            I wish I had the credentials you have but I don’t. However, I do have more than I am able to show here. My expertise goes into the business of intelligence, includes identification in the area of espionage, terrorism, subversion and multi-national crime. I have a total of five case files that I have worked on spanning, in some cases, a lifetime. Those case files have already been worked on and are solved. The real difficulty is in releasing the information because of the nature of the business and where those who uphold and administer the laws do not really embrace critical thinking and problem solving from an independent source, namely, me.

            The other thing I wanted to say is there’re two things about me you should know. Firstly, let me do what I do and stay out of my hair. And secondly, it usually takes me two days to solve these types of crimes. I could do this case discussed here on this blog no problem as I was just trying to understand the chemistry behind the problem. But I would never be given the free reign to have access to the police and intelligence files so I just do what I do and I am very good at it.

            Thank you for clearing that up for me. I do not doubt who may be monitoring this blog spot so I will say this much, I believe you’re really looking for a double agent, possibly triple (more rare, but can be done). I probably will not respond further but I enjoyed hammering out the details and assisting in this case.

  26. anonymouse says:

    The comment “These are compounds that are to humans what a spray-can of insecticide is to flies” from part 3 of your CW series remains one of the most chilling things I’ve ever read.

  27. Terry says:

    Ah, how nice to see “azeotrope” used. Don’t see it enough, or hear the concept discussed. Distillation is a marvelous thing…

  28. GW says:

    May today ” this is part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok”

    Novichok (Russian: новичок meaning “newcomer” or “newbie”) is a series of nerve agents that were developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. Allegedly these are the most deadly nerve agents ever made, with some variants possibly five to eight times more potent than VX, though this has never been proven. They are 4th generation chemical weapons, designed as part of the Soviet program codenamed “Foliant”. Initially designated K-84 and later renamed A-230, the Novichok family of analogs comprises more than a hundred structural variants. Of all the variants, the most promising from a military standpoint was A-232 (Novichok-5).

    The first description of these agents was provided by Mirzayanov. Dispersed in an ultra-fine powder instead of a gas or a vapor, they have unique qualities. A binary agent was then created that would mimic the same properties but would either be manufactured using materials legal under the CWT or be undetectable by treaty regime inspections. The most potent compounds from this family, novichok-5 and novichok-7, are supposedly around five to eight times more potent than VX.

    Mirzayanov gives somewhat different structures for Novichok agents in his autobiography to those which have been identified by Western experts. He makes clear that a large number of compounds were made, and many of the less potent derivatives reported in the open literature as new organophosphate insecticides, so that the secret chemical weapons program could be disguised as legitimate pesticide research.

  29. TJ says:

    It has just been announced by the Prime Minister,

    “The chemical used in the attack, has been identified as being part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok”

    I too found the advice to have a wash a bit bizarre, if it was serious contamination they would have to do more than that! Knowing our State, I suspect it may be a attempt to explain (and deflect criticism) of why large areas are closed off with very little apparently happening.

    1. DDTea says:

      Soap and water is surprisingly effective for decontaminating nerve agents, so I wouldn’t scoff at that advice. Simply wiping off liquid agent is a proven way to terminate exposure. It’s probably what saved the lives of Kim Jong-nam’s attackers, who washed their hands in the airport bathroom after smearing VX on his face.

    2. loupgarous says:

      One of the standard US military decontaminants for nerve agents is supertropical bleach or STB, a mixture of lime and 30% chlorine in the form of dry bleaching powder. It’s generally dumped into a decontamination sprayer in dilution with water to decontaminate equipment contaminated with nerve agent.

      While not a perfect substitute, a clothes washer using sodium hypochlorite bleach and an alkaline detergent would probably decontaminate clothing of small amounts of nerve agent. Better to advise people to take steps they can take themselves right away, than have them not do so and possibly expose themselves to poisoning with a nerve agent known not to respond well to oxime cholinesterase reactivator therapy, inflicting lasting nerve damage on those exposed to it.

  30. David Edwards says:

    UK Prime Minister issues public statement in House of Commons, stating that the agent has been identified as a Novichok agent:

    Courtesy of Reuters

    That adds rather a lot of unwanted spice to the proceedings …

    1. Novichok is incredibly toxic, so it should not have been hard to administer a dose that was swiftly fatal.

      However, it has a couple of other interesting properties. If one can trust Wikipedia, it was specifically designed to be undetectable by the usual NATO monitoring methods. It also is resistant to oximes, which restore acetylcholinesterase to normal functioning. Hence, at sublethal doses, it does permanent nerve damage.

      One concludes that the intent was not simply to kill, but to inflict a lingering and agonizing death, not only on the prime target, but on all who tried to assist him. It was sending a gangster message.

  31. AlphaGamma says:

    British coverage has also stated that Russia’s ambassador to the OPCW is Alexander Shulgin. I wonder if he’s any relation?

    1. utopo says:

      Interesting coincidence, but I think Shulgin is a common enough surname. That and the Alexander Shulgin we have known and loved lived his whole life in America, his Russian father immigrated in the early 1900s, and he exemplified a Berkeley type vibe.

  32. DD says:

    “At the time of this release. Vladimir Putin gave a televised interview saying, basically, that such traitors were still going to get what was coming to them”

    Can you please provide evidence for this statement?

      1. tannenwalde says:

        By saying that the traitors ‘will choke on the 30 silver pieces and kick the buckets’ he meant that their lives would be miserable and they would end up like Judah from the Bible who hung himself out of remorse. The Russian word ‘zagnutsya’ has a number of meanings and its first meaning is ‘to wither or fall into decay’, also ‘to have a poor end’. In slang, it means ‘to finish one’s life miserably’. When used in the context as Putin used it publicly (!!!), it should be understood as an expression of utter bitterness and regret that such traitors had been working along with honest people and hope that they would be condemned and despised and live their lives in constant shame and dishonour as their final punishment. But surely his words must not be understood as direct threat to their lives. The English translation is not quite correct in this case. I guess, the interpreter used the English phrase closest in the meaning and the style to render Putin’s phrase, but the idea was distorted. I guess. ‘to kick the bucket’ is not an appropriate phrase for this translation. ‘To face the music’ fits better.
        You judge Putin by his words only via the translation which doesn’t reflect the soul of the language and that’s why you understand the words directly, whereas they have a double meaning. Remember, the traitors were released from the country after they had served their sentence in jail. What was the point of killing them after that?

  33. Hap says:

    AT: For an example of Assad senior’s beneficence to Syria, I think Hamas rules might be a good place to start. I guess there were, what, thirty or forty thousand people saved from imperialist rule? Dirt does clothe all people equally in death, I guess.

  34. Nile says:

    A couple of observations: Russia closed the factory produsing Novichok in the 1990’s, and they probably did end production.

    Could this attack have used out-of-date military stocks?

    The idea that they can whip up small batches to order is disturbing – the chemist doing this has to know who it’s for and why, and someone in the chain of command has to know that Russia has signed treaties outlawing it – but this is credible, given that it’s Russia and their security services have a very final say on what it is legal or permissible for them to do.

    A final point: is this Novichok agent intended to be non-persistent? Military specifications for chemical weapons can be split into allowing your own troops to move through the area 48 hours after the attack (non-persistent agents), and persistent agents with an area-denial effect.

    If it’s the former, there’s still a health hazard but we’ve probably seen the worst of it already; but if it’s the latter, we’ll see more casualties, and a long-term pattern of unusual dementias and neurodegenerative diseases in Salisbury.

    1. loupgarous says:

      Nile, the Russians appear to have reactivated their covert services’ poison laboratory, according to “Poison laboratory of the Soviet secret services”, This shop was capable of small syntheses of several radiotoxins and specialized chemical poisons, according to former deputy director of Biopreparat Ken Alibek (b. Kanatjan Alibekov) in his book Biohazard.

      But even if Russia did shut their Novichok manufacture down, instead of just moving it out of sight, a kilogram or two would have more than sufficed to do the damage and contamination in the Salisbury attack, and generally many kilograms of nerve agents are used in operational testing and deployment in weapon systems (the US Weteye bomb carried 160 kg of sarin). We just don’t know how much of the Novichok agents apart from those found at the Nukus testing facility were destroyed, or what happened to stocks of those agents not destroyed during Cooperative Threat Reduction disarmament activity.

      Occam’s Razor (“presented with several potential explanations for something, choose the one requiring the fewest assumptions”). comes into play when considering how Russian defectors in the West keep dying from exotic poisons and radiotoxins.

      Just because Canadians lost custody of some Polonium-210 doesn’t mean that Russian dissidents were killed with that particular batch, when Russia is and has been for a while the preponderant world supplier of Po-210. Just because some Novichok agents were destroyed in the presence of US and Allied chemical warfare disarmament workers, and a proposed plant for its manufacture destroyed, doesn’t mean that this was the only facility capable of its manufacture, in or out of Russia. Novichok agents are still entirely a Russian effort.

      I am one of the editors of the wikipedia article “Novichok agent”. Information is in the public domain on components of the several Novichok agents. We chose not to publish it, from encyclopedic considerations (we’re an encyclopedia, not a scientific journal or a DIY book for would-be terrorists).

      But Occam’s Razor again compels us to look for the simplest explanation for the Salisbury attack – a pair of political refugees from Russia who were specifically threatened by Vladimir Putin were poisoned by an agent known to have been manufactured in Russia, and which would be very difficult and risky for people outside that manufacturing effort to have made.

  35. loupgarous says:

    The UK media are now reporting the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are going to Britain to examine samples of nerve agent from the Salisbury attack.

    In related news, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s facing a backbencher revolt over Corbyn’s public skepticism regarding evidence that Putin/Russia were behind the Salisbury attack. So far, 12 Labour PMs have signed a statement condemning Corbyn for his remarks.

    Corbyn is maintaining that some Novichok stocks were diverted from Russian custody and could have been used by a third party. A Facebook group of Corbyn supporters is actually accusing the UK and US of staging the Salisbury attack to discredit Putin.

  36. achiromics says:

    I propose a combinatorial approach to finding new binary nerve agents. I tentatively call it “accelerated sarindipity”

  37. tannenwalde says:

    All this is a highly professionally staged show for housewives and people alike who are ready to swallow whatever they are given without ever scrutinizing and analyzing what they are stuffed with. Scary fibs of highly-toxic military purpose nerve agent meant for mass killings, but somehow skillfully and pointedly used only on a couple of people – the Skripals and a police officer – doesn’t it sound too far-fetched and ridiculous? Has anyone seen at least a picture – if not a video – of the Skripals and the police officer in any of the UK hospitals? Why aren’t their relatives appearing anywhere on TV and making alarming statements of their critical state? Where are the sobs and cries so enjoyed by the BBC channels to make the picture even gloomier? Are they classified too? Why don’t they show the half-recovered police officer to us to back up their accusations? Why is the nerve agent itself is a top secret matter? And why do the brits refuse to share a sample of it with Russia, if they really want to find out the truth and investigate the case? And the most ridiculous to my mind is this video – a bunch of people in ridiculously looking toxic bright costumes are pottering about the ‘highly dangerous’ place, as they claim, like some astronauts on the moon, while just a few meters away police officers and other idle onlookers are clustering together wearing simple clothes and uniforms not meant to protect from any volatile deathly substances. Another strangeness is that they have already been doing it for 3 weeks and it has occurred to them only now to remove the bench from the place. What did they wait for? For the wind to spread the chemical off the bench around the place? Seems, they have been collecting the soil from the place at a grain per day in a slow motion. Wasn’t it a more effective way to just cut out some turf with the soil for further examining at a special laboratory – by the way not far from the place of the alleged poisoning???
    It all looks like an ongoing spy soap to scare the ordinary people out of their wits and spoil relationship with Russia to divert people’s attention from the Brexit-related fiasco of the government and to appoint Russia guilty of all possible sins ever in the world. Never in my life have I heard such a brazen bold and boorish behavior of the UK top leaders! It’s simply outrageous!

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      I will assume that this is the work of a patriotic Russian citizen who is upset at the treatment of this incident in the press. Although you will have to admit that there are other explanations, particularly for a response this conspiratorial.

  38. tannenwalde says:

    And yet another thing. Is ‘highly likely’ accepted by the court now as a firm evidence to any crime now? Are all verdicts in the world going to be based on ‘highly likely’ assumptions from now on?

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