Novichok and Other Toxins

Hugh Pennington

The UK has the highest incidence in the world of poisonings caused by the toxins produced by E.coli O157:H7. It killed 17 people in the outbreak centred on Wishaw in central Scotland in 1996, still a world record for lethality. My involvement in attempts to stop a repeat led to an invitation to visit the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down. Security was impressive. The heavily armed welcome at the gate left an abiding memory. It is reasonable to guess that the Russian chemical warfare facility at Shikhany is as well guarded. The notion that nasty substances of high purity could leave it without some kind of authorisation seems highly unlikely.

The precise chemical name of the agent that was used in Salisbury on 4 March hasn’t yet been publicly disclosed. Without doubt the initial symptoms and laboratory test results on the victims gave very strong clues about its nature, and techniques such as mass spectroscopy went on to give a precise identification. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons yesterday confirmed Porton Down’s findings.

The OPCW note mentions receiving information about the acetylcholinesterase status of the three affected individuals. Acetylcholinesterase plays an essential role in the control of muscles by nerves. Its action is blocked by classical nerve agents of the sarin, tabun and VX family. It seems likely that the poison deployed in Salisbury was related to these, possibly developed as a tool for assassins rather than for military use – a murder weapon as novel as the ricin in the pellet shot from an umbrella on Waterloo Bridge into Georgi Markov in 1978, or the polonium that was put in Alexander Litvinenko’s tea in 2006.

The Skripals are on the mend. This is not unprecedented. A person in Malaysia with puffer fish poisoning who developed fixed dilated pupils and brain stem areflexia – the cardinal features of brain death – made a complete recovery after being mechanically ventilated. The puffer fish toxin is tetrodotoxin, one of the most potent non-protein poisons known. It attacks nerves and the heart by blocking sodium ion channels. Recovery depends on growing new ones. Recovery from classical nerve agent poisoning is similar; it happens when the victim makes new acetylcholinesterase molecules to replace the ones to which the nerve agent has irreversibly attached itself.

I recently spoke at a food science conference in Chile. I walked every day to the Santiago Metro past the Escuela Militar del Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins. The Pinochet junta was sworn in there. The junta soon established its secret police – the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional – which not only ran the notorious Villa Grimaldi torture centre, but organised the assassination of exiles abroad: General Carlos Prats (Pinochet’s predecessor as army commander in chief) and his wife, killed by a car bomb in Buenos Aires; the Christian Democrat politician Bernardo Leighton, shot in Rome (he survived); Orlando Letelier, killed by a car bomb outside the Chilean embassy in Washington DC, where he had been ambassador in the Allende era.

It seems highly unlikely that Sergei Skripal was considered to be a personal threat to the continued existence of the Russian regime. But it could have been a mistake on his part to live in Salisbury. The city’s proximity to Porton may well have pointed to the kind of poison to use against him. And in case of failure it would provide a useful way to muddy the waters. It is reasonable to speculate that the assassination attempt was designed to kill Skripal very quickly; the sudden death of a 66-year-old diabetic who had spent four years in a Russian prison would not be medically suspicious. But the attempt was botched. The method of delivery of the poison, environmental contamination, delivered only a sub-lethal dose.


  • 14 April 2018 at 8:32am
    ledmatt says:
    > The notion that nasty substances of high purity could leave it without some kind of authorisation seems highly unlikely.

    Yet we know that in 2001 anthrax was taken from U.S. government labs which were presumably also strongly guarded.

  • 14 April 2018 at 10:03pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Both the blog post and the first reaction to it seem unreasonable in parts. First, Pennington doesn’t think Skirpal is a high-priority threat to the Putin regime, ignoring the fact that he is already earmarked as a ‘traitor’ and therefore punishable. Regardless of 'priority' Pennington might have acknowledged that the Russians have a motive for revenge. He also argues that Skirpal might have been poisoned due to the fact that his residence is close to a facility that has the toxin, thereby muddying the investigative waters, based on the possibility that someone, not acting on Russia’s behalf, might have done the deed. So, was he poisoned (by someone working on behalf of Russia) because he was a ‘target of convenience’? If that’s the case, how does ‘low priority’ even enter the picture here? If the Russians believe he is high priority, then that’s what he is.

    Second, ledmatt’s remark leaves one hanging in the air as well. Did someone working at the Porton facility steal some toxin and poison Skirpal and his daughter because: (1) He or she has a personal grudge against the man? Or (2) He or she is working under orders of the Putin regime? Or (3) He or she just happens to admire that regime and would like to do it a ‘favor’? Or (4) this is a ‘false-flag’ operation in which sinister UK higher authorities have a Porton employee do the dirty work in order to create a cause celebre that might be used to indict the Putin regime? Let me know your thinking on this, ledmatt.

    I’m confused, but open to enlightenment.

    • 15 April 2018 at 2:02pm
      ledmatt says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Mr Pennington remarked that it was unlikely that poison had been taken from the Russian chemical warfare facility at Shikhany, given that it is likely to be as well guarded as Porton Down. My thinking is simply that there is a counter-example indicating that it is possible.

  • 15 April 2018 at 12:42pm
    Graucho says:
    One plausible hypothesis is that Putin is letting Russian emigres know that they can run, but they can't hide. An essential element in this is to make it very obvious that he was behind the attacks. Hence the use of polonium and then of a nerve agent. A shooting could have been done by anybody. Hugh Pennington could have added dioxin to his list as happened to Mr. Yuschenko whom the Kremlin didn't like. Remember what happened the Trotsky ? As far as the Kremlin's MO with critics is concerned, le plus ca change.

  • 15 April 2018 at 3:46pm
    Edward Weldon says:
    Speculation, speculation & more speculation. Seems about as clear as mud to me. Whatever else,it comes across as totally amateurish; incompetently excecuted, incompetently investigated & undiplomatically stirred into an International Incident.

  • 15 April 2018 at 4:01pm
    Edward Weldon says:
    Speculation, speculation & more speculation. Seems about as clear as mud to me. Whatever else its all very amateurish; incompetently excecuted, incompetently investigated & undiplomatically stirred into an International Incident.

  • 16 April 2018 at 8:49am
    XopherO says:
    It is hard to know if anyone is telling the truth about the Salisbury or Syrian attacks. Indeed, speculation, speculation. There are so many inconsistencies in all the reports, as this Guardian piece points out.

    There is little doubt that the Novichok family of agents is well known to many weapons development/protection agencies around the world (developing antidotes is a major activity after all), and they have the ability to make it, probably of high quality (what is 'high quality' anyway - another 'persuasive' trope to point the finger?) So it is extremely odd that it took four hours to take effect, and much longer to start any treatment. And only three people affected, and two at least recovering remarkably quickly? It is hard to see what either the Russians or Syrians gain if they are indeed the guilty parties. But maybe they are, in this Trumped-up chest-beating world, with the USA seeking total hegemony, and the UK and France clinging to its coat-tails. But there is simply not enough proof to start sabre-rattling on the scale we are seeing.

    • 16 April 2018 at 10:42am
      XopherO says: @ XopherO
      Just to add. Novichoks are apparently five times or more lethal than V agents like VX. But as an ex-biochemist friend said, what is the difference between a tiny drop and a fifth of a tiny drop. We are talking a milligram or less. If ingested through the mouth or lungs, death is very quick. In this case, a supposed pure powder was picked up on the hands from a doorknob. Absorption through the skin is slower, but not that slow. Anyway in the four hours, including driving, a pub and a restaurant, there would be a very big chance the powder was transferred to the mouth or an eye, resulting in quick absorption. There is no antidote, but the progress of nerve destruction can be slowed and stopped, though the autonomous systems, heart and lungs, are quickly disabled. But the time scale involved? We are not being given the info that would answer some of these questions, quite the contrary, it seems to be being made up as the story develops.

Read more