Police cordon Wiltshire

COMMENT: Why Can't We Detect These Novichoks?

A murder investigation has been launched after a woman died following exposure to a nerve agent in Wiltshire.

Police cordon Wiltshire

Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Salisbury remains cordoned off by police. (Image: PA).

It is with great sadness that we learn of the death of Dawn Sturgess last night in Salisbury District Hospital who has succumbed to the deadly nerve agent Novichok.

The most likely scenario appears to be that some sort of container, possibly used to transport or ‘mix' the Novichok, was subsequently discarded in or around Queen Elizabeth Gardens by the assailant(s) and this has now turned into a murder inquiry with the Russian State very much in the dock.

We now know that Novichoks were developed in Russia over the last three decades specifically to overmatch NATO chemical defence capabilities.

What is causing us most problems in Salisbury at the moment is detecting them, and their persistence, unlike most other nerve agents, which is elongating the threat to the residents of Salisbury and the surrounds.

In a number of interviews over the last few months to the world’s media, the Head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Ahmet Uzumcu confirmed that the nerve agent used in the Salisbury attack was of high purity, persistence and would not be resistant to weather conditions.

Confirming the British view that this is a military grade nerve agent called Novichok, which is/was only made at the secret and closed military town Shikhany in central Russia.

Mysteriously, but not unexpectedly, we learn that the Shikhany laboratories, whence the Novichoks came in central Russia, have been bulldozed flat recently.

Amesbury baptist centre
Amesbury Baptist Centre was another of the locations police cordoned off last week. (Image: PA).

As part of their investigation of the chemical weapon use in Salisbury, the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which the Russians are signatories ‘apparently’, would decree that the OPCW should be able to inspect Shikhany and be afforded every assistance by the Russian State.

The OPCW suggests this is probably an offensive programme rather than just research, which is allowable with amounts of agent less than 5mgs.

Russia appears to have used, at the very least, up to ten times the allowable amount for research in this botched assassination attempt but the debris left has now turned this into a murder inquiry as well.

If this is an offensive programme, as we suspect, it has huge implications for NATO, as our chemical defence capabilities are not currently up to detecting Novichoks and our medical counter-measures require work. 

The Russians, no doubt, will have seen how effective chemical weapons have been in Syria when used by the Syrian military, especially when fighting in built-up areas and cities.

There are compelling reports from very reliable sources that the Syrian Army is even using the deadly nerve agent Sarin in hand grenades, to attack people hiding in air raid shelters and tunnels.

Army Salisbury clean up
The military were deployed to assist with the clean up in Salisbury earlier this year following the Skripals incident.

The use of chemical weapons was key to breaking the four-year siege of Aleppo in December 2016, the seven-year siege of Ghouta in December 2017 and most recently in Douma April 2018.

This low-level use of chemical weapons has never been envisaged by NATO, to the best of my knowledge, and the prospect of Russia using Novichoks in this fashion in any East-West confrontation is extremely worrying.

We know at the moment we cannot readily detect Novichoks and we do not have an antidote, but we believe our general service personal protection equipment is up to the task.

No doubt the British Ministry of Defence and US Department of Defense are now working out how to nullify this ‘super’ weapon of mass destruction, hitherto undeclared by the Russians.

There is no doubt also that Porton Down and Edgewood, the US equivalent, will be now ‘burning the midnight oil’ to find antidotes, counter-measures, and detectors and they will undoubtedly prevail.

But until they do, the angst will continue for Salisbury residents until the Novichok container is found and all suspect areas are decontaminated.

By Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE, former commanding officer of the UK Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Regiment & NATO Chemical Defence Force and advisor to NGOs in Syria.