Doubts about “Novichoks”

The following briefing note is developed from ongoing research and investigation into the use of chemical and biological weapons during the 2011-present war in Syria conducted by members of the Working Group on Syria, Media and Propaganda. The note reflects work in progress. However, the substantive questions raised need answering, especially given the seriousness of the political crisis that is now developing. We welcome comments and corrections.

Authors Professor Paul Mckeigue and Professor Piers Robinson piers.robinson@sheffield.ac.uk +447764763350 .  (http://syriapropagandamedia.org).

Details

(1) Notes on Novichoks and the Salisbury poisonings

In the House of Commons on 12 March the Prime Minister stated that:

It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. It is part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok. Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the Government have concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

The Prime Minister said if there is no “credible response” by the end of Tuesday 12 March, the UK would conclude there has been an “unlawful use of force” by Moscow.

Summary of the Key Issues that Need to be Addressed

1) There are reasons to doubt that these compounds are military grade nerve agents or that a Russian “Novichok” programme ever existed. If they were potentially usable as chemical weapons, people on the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board who were in a position to know the properties of these compounds would have recommended that they be added to the list of Scheduled Chemicals. They have never been added.

2) Synthesis at bench scale of organic chemicals such as the purported “Novichoks” is within the capability of a modern chemistry laboratory. Porton Down itself must have been able to synthesize these compounds in order to develop tests for them.  The detection of such a compound does not establish Russian origin.

Details

(1) Doubts about the history of the “Novichok” Programme

The history of the alleged “Novichok” programme remains unclear. The original source for the story that a new class of organophosphate compounds was developed as chemical weapons under the name Novichok in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s is from Vil Mirzayanov, a defector in the 1990s. Mirzayanov described the chemical structures of these compounds and stated that the toxicity of an agent named Novichuk-5 “under optimal conditions exceeds the effectiveness of VX by five to eight times”. Mirzayanov alleged that Russian testing and production had continued after signing the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993.

However, a review by Dr Robin Black, who was until recently head of the detection laboratory at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Porton Down), emphasizes that there is no independent confirmation of Mirzayanov’s claims about the chemical properties of these compounds:

In recent years, there has been much speculation that a fourth generation of nerve agents, ‘Novichoks’ (newcomer), was developed in Russia, beginning in the 1970s as part of the ‘Foliant’ programme, with the aim of finding agents that would compromise defensive countermeasures. Information on these compounds has been sparse in the public domain, mostly originating from a dissident Russian military chemist, Vil Mirzayanov. No independent confirmation of the structures or the properties of such compounds has been published. (Black, 2016)

The OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) appeared to doubt the existence of “Novichoks”, and did not advise that the compounds described by Mirzayanov, or their precursors, should be designated as Scheduled Chemicals that should be controlled under the Chemical Weapons Convention:-

[The SAB] emphasised that the definition of toxic chemicals in the Convention would cover all potential candidate chemicals that might be utilised as chemical weapons. Regarding new toxic chemicals not listed in the Annex on Chemicals but which may nevertheless pose a risk to the Convention, the SAB makes reference to “Novichoks”. The name “Novichok” is used in a publication of a former Soviet scientist who reported investigating a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons. The SAB states that it has insufficient information to comment on the existence or properties of “Novichoks”. (OPCW, 2013)

The Scientific Advisory Board included Dr Black, and several other heads of national chemical defence laboratories in western countries. These labs would have presumably made their own evaluation of Mirzayanov’s claims and specifically would have done their own experiments to determine if compounds with the structures that he described were of military grade toxicity. Such studies can be done quickly and efficiently in vitro using methods developed for drug discovery (combinatorial chemistry and high-throughput screening). It is reasonable to assume that if these labs had found that these compounds were potentially usable as chemical weapons, the Scientific Advisory Board would have recommended adding them to the list of Scheduled Chemicals as the Chemical Weapons Convention requires.

Until independent confirmation of Mirzayanov’s claims about the toxicity of these compounds is available, and there is an adequate explanation of why the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board did not recommend that the compounds purported to be “Novichoks” and their precursors be designated as scheduled chemicals, it is reasonable to question whether these compounds are military grade nerve agents, or that a Russian “Novichok” programme ever actually existed.

 

(2) Who Could Have Synthesized the ‘Novichok’ Compounds?

 The Prime Minister stated that:

There are, therefore, only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on 4 March: either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country; or the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

However, Mirzayanov originally claimed that the Novichok agents were easy to synthesize:-

One should be mindful that the chemical components or precursors of A-232 or its binary version novichok-5 are ordinary organophosphates that can be made at commercial chemical companies that manufacture such products as fertilizers and pesticides. (Mirzayanov, 1995).

Soviet scientists had published many papers in the open literature on the chemistry of such compounds for possible use as insecticides. Mirzayanov claimed that “this research program was premised on the ability to hide the production of precursor chemicals under the guise of legitimate commercial chemical production of agricultural chemicals”.

As the structures of these compounds have been described, any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound. Indeed, Porton Down must have been able to synthesize these compounds in order to develop tests for them. It is therefore misleading to assert that only Russia could have produced such compounds.

 

 

References

Vil S. Mirzayanov, “Dismantling the Soviet/Russian Chemical Weapons Complex: An Insider’s View,” in Amy E. Smithson, Dr. Vil S. Mirzayanov, Gen Roland Lajoie, and Michael Krepon, Chemical Weapons Disarmament in Russia: Problems and Prospects, Stimson Report No. 17, October 1995, p. 21. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/105521/Report17.pdf.

OPCW: Report of the Scientific Advisory Board on developments in science and technology for the Third Review Conference 27 March 2013 https://www.opcw.org/fileadmin/OPCW/CSP/RC-3/en/rc3wp01_e_.pdf

Robin Black. (2016) Development, Historical Use and Properties of Chemical Warfare Agents. Royal Society of Chemistry http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/chapter/bk9781849739696-00001/978-1-84973-969-6

 

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41 Responses to Doubts about “Novichoks”

  1. Pingback: Theresa May et Tony Blair, même combat ?

  2. bill says:

    sent and posted this everywhere i can

  3. Who had an interest in poisoning of Mr Skripal? In 1990 the west started to conquer the eastern world. Everything went smoothly up to Ukraine and Syria where Russia resisted. I think that is all what it is about. Russia and China have become strong powers which made the west goal much harder to achieve so that the west has became desperate. I think we are watching the result of it.

  4. Pingback: Poisoned Russian Spy Lived Within 12 Kilometres of British Research Center Using “Nerve” Agents-Sounds Like a Set Up! – Brutal Proof

  5. Pingback: Today,s Thought

  6. Sha'Tara says:

    Mentez, mentez, it en restera toujour quelque chose!

  7. Pingback: The farcical reality behind Theresa May’s “novichok” story | OffGuardian

  8. yayakayhan says:

    Hence the request from Russia to
    a) send a sample to the OPCW
    b) give themselves a sample for their own analysis

    What is probably more worrying is the unjustified escalation in outright lying and provocation (with unquestioning support from other lapdog leaders) against a country with a considerable nuclear arsenal instead of the usual fall guys of the past Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria etc. There is a total disconnect in what is being claimed in Westminster and what people really believe in the UK. The UK government (with its national press) seems to be under obvious political duress beyond that of the usual Special relationship with the US. Whomever it is, it has compromised the decision making of the UK government and the long term security of the country.

  9. Pingback: Are ‘Novichok’ Poisons Real? – May’s Claims Fall Apart | Worldtruth

  10. Pingback: I think we’ve heard this before. | Once. Again.

  11. bill says:

    Tim, i would like to know if Dr Whites statement here is true . She is Research Director for International Security at Chatham House and has said that British experts would definitely be able to detect minute trace elements in samples of the Novichok nerve agent used in Salisbury that would prove the country of origin thus providing clear and definitive evidence if the nerve agent originated in Russia. Its my understanding that there is no inevitably at all of any marker or trace elements. I would love to know what the truth really is on this important point.Thanks if you can clarify

    • Paul McKeigue says:

      Bill

      This point was discussed in an earlier thread on the alleged sarin attacks in Syria

      https://timhayward.wordpress.com/2017/07/08/how-like-sarin-is-a-sarin-like-substance/#comment-1151

      My comment links to a paper by Fraga et al. and to conference presentations on “chemical signature attribution” of chemical warfare agents.

      In brief the answer is yes. A formal chemical signature attribution study, based on the profile of hundreds of trace impurities, comparing the target sample with reference samples of the agent or its precursors, and using multivariate statistical analysis to combine information from all the impurities, can identify the source. Such a chemical signature attribution study has never been reported for the sarin collected from alleged chemical attacks in Syria, though reference material has been available to OPCW since 2014 from the Syrian military stocks of sarin precursor destroyed on the MV Cape Ray.

      One caution in applying this to a Novichok sample is that Mirzayanov has claimed that the precursors of Novichoks are “ordinary organophosphates that can be made at commercial chemical companies that manufacture such products as fertilizers and pesticides”. If this is true, anyone who wanted to lay a trail of false evidence could prepare the agent using precursors sourced from Russia.

      • bill says:

        i am so grateful for your response,honesty and caution Paul and obviously for the work that you do thanks…

      • Istvan Ujvary says:

        I respectfully disagree with the “”brief answer…yes.”
        Given that PD and the Swiss lab submitting analytical data to OPCW have only samples from one single source, that is from Salisbury, I doubt that the trace analysis methodology described by Fraga et al. could be applied to the establishment of the origin, that is the production site,* of the novel nerve agent(s) isolated from the biological and physical samples (or of their precursors for that matter). Contaminants could hint to the synthetic methodology though.
        *I think, however, that if the actual poison, which is often claimed to be a binary agent, was prepared shortly before deployment, in the UK for example, from the two immediate precursors and used without further purification the catalyst or acid scavanger (to add to the confusion even quinuclidine base could have been used!) needed for this simple acylation (phosphorylation?) step can readily be identified.
        Let us await the full report disclosing the actual chemical structure(s) of the alleged ‘novichok’ or related agent(s) identifed.

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  15. timhayward says:

    A very readable update bringing political and civil service insights to bear on the whole affair is this further piece by Craig Murray: https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2018/03/of-a-type-developed-by-liars/

  16. Pingback: Are ‘Novichok’ Poisons Real? – May’s Claims Fall Apart | Friends of Syria

  17. Pingback: 'Novichok' Could Only Come From Russia...or Anyone Who Bought This $8.16 Book on Amazon-Times of News Russia

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  20. Pingback: Doubts about “Novichoks” | Tim Hayward – HISTÓRIA da POLÍTICA

  21. Steve Finney says:

    This I believe is an interesting assessment from the French journalist Thierry Meyssan who has reported extensively on the Middle East. If he is correct, his four days include the linking of a discovered plot for another Sarin attack in Syris, & the sacking of Tillerson to the current Salisbury farce :

    http://www.voltairenet.org/article200232.html

  22. Pingback: Hillary Clinton Ordered Diplomats To Suppress ‘Novichok’ Discussions | williambowles.info

  23. Pingback: Doubts about ‘Novichoks’ By Tim Hayward | williambowles.info

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  25. Pingback: Update to briefing note ‘Doubts about Novichoks’ | Tim Hayward

  26. Pingback: Hillary Clinton Ordered Diplomats To Suppress ‘Novichok’ Discussions – Counter Information

  27. Pingback: Hillary Clinton Ordered Diplomats To Suppress ‘Novichok’ Discussions – The Greanville Post

  28. Pingback: Novichuckle and how Clinton tried to keep it under wraps |

  29. Pingback: UPDATE: Briefing Note on ‘Doubts about Novichoks’ - 21st Century Wire

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  31. Pingback: UPDATE: Briefing Note on ‘Doubts about Novichoks’ - Red Team News

  32. Jonathan Heswald-Beswick Gruddlestone Esq says:

    The US gained a US patent for treating the effects Novichok agents in September 2015. The patent was originally applied for in 2008.

    http://www.freepatentsonline.com/9132135.pdf

  33. Pingback: WikiLeaks: Hillary Clinton Ordered Diplomats To Censor ‘Novichok’ Discussions – Nwo Report

  34. Pingback: Das Nowitschok-Märchen: Skripal-Inszenierung hat einen langen Vorlauf – Teil 1 | Kundschafter der DDR

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