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Initial Thoughts on Novichok Agents, Sergei Skripal, Russia and UK: 1

March 20, 2018 13 comments

About a couple of weeks ago, a former Russian military intelligence officer named Sergei Skripal and his adult daughter were found unconscious on a public bench in Salisbury by a passing doctor and nurse. They were taken by paramedics to a nearby hospital where their condition was determined to be the result of exposure to an organophosphate compound, most likely a nerve agent. Within a day or two of the event, the British government was openly blaming Russia for this incident. The Russian government has, so far, officially denied any involvement in whatever caused Skripal and his daughter to end up in the hospital.

While there is no shortage of alternative narratives, speculation , trolling and changing stories by all sides involved in this incident, especially UK, we are still not close to anything approaching a somewhat reliable account of how Skripal and his daughter got exposed to whatever chemical they were exposed to on that day. To complicate matters further, a lot of scientifically illiterate liars who happen to write for supposedly “respectable” news outlets such as the NYT, WP and Guardian have muddied the waters even further with their bullshit and.. face it.. propaganda.

In this post, I will try to de-convolute a lot of the bullshit, lies, exaggerations surrounding this incident and the chemicals allegedly used. I will also talk about some of the peculiar, and largely glossed over, facts of this case.

1] While definitive diagnosis of poisoning by cholinesterase inhibitors such as organophosphates is relatively quick and easy, identifying the compound responsible for that intoxication is often difficult- especially if the compound is present in minute quantities. But why? Well.. it comes down to the nature of tests necessary for reaching each endpoint. It is fairly easy to run a small sample of blood and plasma through an assay which measures RBC and serum cholinesterase activity. While not identical to neuronal acetylcholinesterase, these enzymes are similar enough to each other as a family that compounds which inhibit one will inhibit the others.

Ready-to-use kits for measuring both red blood cell and plasma cholinesterase are available in the diagnostic laboratories of almost every major hospital. In contrast to that, rapid and definitive identification of an organophosphate compound is harder- especially if the compound is present in very small quantities or is uncommon. While modern mass-spectroscopy based methods can detect minuscule amounts of any chemical compound, preparing samples for testing can often take more than a couple of days- especially if you do not know which test specimen contains the compound of interest.

2] While the government in UK still maintains that the compound they identified is a Novichok agent‘, we still have not seen any of the evidence which led to their conclusion. You might remember that in 2002, the UK government made a similarly bold claim that they were certain about Saddam Hussein possessing large stockpiles of WMDs. We all remember how that one played out. It does not help that their stories about where Skripal and his daughter might have gotten exposed have kept on changing. Also, we do not have any definitive evidence about the extent of exposure to other people in their vicinity or those involved in their subsequent medical treatment and investigation.

Similarly, their contention that this compound must have come from a “Russian chemical laboratory” is not supported by available evidence. The structure of more than a few of these compounds is readily available and while their synthesis would be highly risky, a large corporation or government program in any country with a half-decent chemical industry could synthesize them without much difficulty. Furthermore, these compounds were developed to be especially easy to synthesize- in addition to being highly toxic. Unless they can show that isolated samples contain some signature reaction side-products or they apprehend those who poisoned Skripal and his daughter- definitive attribution to Russia is basically impossible.

3] There is also the question of why Russia would target Skripal and his daughter in 2018, as opposed to anytime after the 2010 spy swap with UK. Why wait eight years to do something that is certain to get negative international attention? Sure.. Skripal was seen as a traitor by the Russians, but that has been the case since he was arrested by them in 2004. It is actually somewhat odd that he did not die in a Russian prison sometime between 2004 and 2010. Also, why go after him when there are other more target-worthy Russian expats living in UK.

And then there is the vexed question about why his daughter was still working in the US embassy in Moscow. Think about it.. why would a person whose father was imprisoned for high treason in a country continue to work in the embassy of an adversary nation in that country? Why did she not work in a similar position in another country? Why flaunt her presence in Moscow by working at the US embassy, when the government there saw her father as a traitor. Clearly, there is a lot more to this story than has, so far, been made public.

Will write another post on this topic based on future developments and comments.

What do you think? Comments?