It is a foregone conclusion in Western capitals that the Russians were behind the use of an “exotic” nerve agent that critically injured Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the town of Salisbury, not far from Stonehenge, in England, earlier this month. Tissue and other samples of the agent, collected at different sites, were analyzed by chemical weapons experts at Porton Down, a science park close to Salisbury that houses the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, similar to the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center at Ft. Detrick, Maryland.
What makes a nerve gas, which is an organophosphate, exotic? As the British authorities have so far disclosed, the formulation of the nerve agent was quite unusual compared to well-known nerve agents such as Sarin, Tabun and VX. Furthermore, “exotic” also refers to the qualities of the material itself: in simplest terms, this was a specially militarized version of nerve gas.
Nerve gases have been known since the 1930s, when they were first developed in Nazi Germany. For various reasons – including Winston Churchill’s threat to bomb German cities with anthrax-filled bombs – the Germans did not use their nerve gas, although they had already prepared artillery shells and bombs for battlefield use. The Germans also experimented with nerve gas on concentration camp inmates, and tested the agent at places like the complex at Gross-Rosen, located 40 miles southwest of Wroclaw in present-day western Poland. There, some 40,000 inmates would perish from disease, hunger, injury, shooting and poisoning, many of them women and children. Gross-Rosen was a huge Nazi armaments manufacturing facility.
A militarized nerve agent is designed to be easily deployed and used, to be persistent on the battlefield or targeted area, and to kill efficiently and quickly. The US developed binary weapons to deliver nerve gas, thereby minimizing the risks of handling the material. A binary weapon has a membrane that divides the two major chemicals that combine to form the nerve agent. But Iraq and Syria both used “live” fully-mixed nerve agent that was loaded into warheads or bombs.
But Iraq also appears to have developed a “dusty” version of nerve gas that is a better weapon. It seems now – judging from what has so far been released by the UK authorities – that the Skripals were poisoned by a dusty agent, with suspicion falling on Segrei Skripal’s car, a red BMW. Nerve agent has been found on the door handle of the car and there is a strong suspicion that a dusty agent form of the nerve agent flooded the cockpit of the vehicle from the BMW’s ventilation system. Among other things, the overall operation to poison Sergei Skripal was professional and well-planned.
Regarding Iraq, the anthrax attacks in the United States following the 9/11 attacks used a dusty agent that the FBI suspected originated at Ft. Detrick, but that was never proved. In fact, it is more likely the substance was passed to the 9/11 terrorists or their associates by Iraqi intelligence. It contained the Ames strain of anthrax, which is unique to the US but which both the Russians and the Iraqis had. Using Ames was intentional, to deflect attention to anything other than a US source. (Ames was also found as part of the anthrax in the Sverdlovsk accident in 1979.)
A dusty agent is made up of a dried powder form of a poison, whether mustard, Anthrax or a nerve gas. (Dusty agents are also used in insecticides.) It is known that Iraq bought two Niro spray dryers to make dusty mustard and anthrax, and perhaps also nerve gas. Typically, a dusty agent consists of the agent itself plus a form of silicon dioxide or hydrophilic silica, or talc, and a binder and some preservatives. The idea behind a dusty agent is that it can penetrate gas masks and gaps in protective coverings and can poison the skin. Thus even if it is not ingested by breathing, the nerve agent or other poison can do its work.
A militarized nerve agent presents significant defense problems, even if the threat is known and countermeasures are in place. In the case of nerve gas, the usual antidote is a fast injection of atropine, often combined with other chemicals including pralidoxime chloride and sometimes with valium. However, if the nerve agent is very powerful, more atropine is needed and the atropine itself can be fatal. The nerve agent used on the Skripals is 5 to 8 times stronger than VX, making the atropine antidote dangerous to use in large amounts.
In addition to the immediate risks, well-stabilized dusty nerve agents are designed to adhere to surfaces, are highly persistent and difficult to remove safely. The latest reports indicate that nerve agent traces are popping up at a number of locations in Salisbury, including on the clothing and in the vehicles of First Responders. And a nerve agent, likely the exotic version, has been found in the town of Gillingham. Exactly why is not yet known.
The Russians no doubt wanted to make sure that other defectors, double agents and personae non gratae are being warned, and that those in Russia who may entertain thoughts of spilling state secrets can expect the same treatment
There may have been other poison substances mixed in with the Skripal nerve agent. When the pair were in the Zizzi restaurant in Salisbury, it is reported that Sergei Skripal jumped out of his chair and was screaming incoherently, demanding the restaurant check. This sort of behavior, indicative of a cognitive breakdown, is a characteristic of a neurotoxin, which could be caused by snake venom. It is not one of the symptoms of a nerve agent.
Why would the Russians use a special nerve agent formulation on targets outside the country where the agent itself is like a signpost of its place of origin. As Prime Minister Teresa May has said, the agent used is a class of weapon known in Russia as Novichok, meaning Newcomer. We know this because defector Vil Mirzayanov, a scientist and later head of Foreign Technical Counterintelligence at the State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology (GosNIIOKhT) in Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s, claims he helped produce these agents in Russia (he was jailed and later released). Thus the Russians used an agent that would leave a clear fingerprint. But for what reason?
Part of the answer is that the Russians no doubt wanted to make sure that other defectors, double agents and personae non gratae are being warned, and that those in Russia who may entertain thoughts of spilling state secrets can expect the same treatment.
We do not yet know the full extent of the collateral damage from the affair in Salisbury and its spread to Gillingham, a 45-minute drive away. Just as the polonium 210 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 turned into a mess to decontaminate, many in the UK felt ill as a result of coming into contact with traces of Novichok. So far, the number is around 38 people; but that will increase and there are long term impacts from nerve agents including respiratory diseases and even cancers. The full impact is not yet known.
The British have every reason to be extremely angry over the attempted murder in Salisbury and the method chosen by the Russians. So should the world community demand that production of these dangerous materials finally end. These weapons are a scourge that must and should be eradicated.