I think it is fair to say that there was a ripple of surprise when Prime Minister May announced that the organophosphate used in the Salisbury murder attempt was a Novichok. Until yesterday the classification on these agents was such that even mentioning them in company got a raised ‘should you be talking about this?’ eyebrow. Now that shibboleth is broken and Novichoks can be discussed over the breakfast table.
It would be hard to underestimate the triple checking that would have gone on inside DSTL/PHE before that identification was pushed up the chain. This is a decision that has ramifications everywhere from the OPCW to NATO. We seem to be approaching yet another chemical ‘red line’ being crossed and it is now down to the British government to see whether they are prepared to do anything about it.
Dr. Vil Mizayanov (see CBRNe World, Summer 2009 and August 2012), former chief of the Department of Technical Counter Intelligence of GoSNIIOKHT, stated that he was surprised that it has been used this way. “I was surprised. I never supposed a Novichok would be used in this terrorist way. When I tried to publish my book I was told, ‘No, no traditional terrorist would use it,’ but the government of Russia is a terrorist government and has used it like this.”
While it is always difficult to be emphatic on any identification from thousands of miles away he was happy that the scientists at Porton Down had a correct analysis despite some of the eye witness reports not being entirely in accordance with organophosphate symptoms. “A Novichok is like other nerve agents, but with more brutal properties. It is almost incurable and 10 times more potent than VX or VR/Substance 33. General symptoms would be common with VX [and as for the other symptoms]… I trust the mass spectrometer. Every substance has its individual mass spec and if it matches the spectra then they will know it. The English chemists are very strong, there is no doubt.”
Dr Mirzayanov was equally emphatic that it could only come from Russian labs. “Nobody in this country [US] has Novichoks, it is only Russia, so there is no doubt it is Russian business. Russia has circumvented the CWC and tried to ensure that no-one knows the formula and the mass spec, they used this agent to poison sure in the belief that no-one could measure it.”
As to whether it is the A230 series that he was involved in, Dr Mirzayanov is less sure since he is convinced in the past 25 years (since he left) that there will have been further research. “Oh, it is absolutely clear that they continued, why not? [Their reading of the] CWC does not prohibit them from continuing research work.”