OPCW on Salisbury poisoning – one step forward, two back?

Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons headquarters in The Hague. Image credit: Prensa Latina Ready Syria to Cooperate with Organization Against Chemical Weapons

Chemical weapons are a current hot topic. We are bombarded daily with media reports mentioning them. They seem to be driving an increase in international tensions. And all sorts of conspiracy theories are circulating.

In the midst of the fast-moving narratives and claims, sensible people are asking for evidence. That is where the international watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) should come in. So I welcome two bits of news which may help in the search for evidence;

  1. The completion of the OPCW work requested by the UK to provide independent confirmation of the UK findings on the toxic chemical behind the poisoning of three people (Sergei and Yulia Skripal, a father and daughter, and a local police officer Nicholas Bailey) in Salisbury, UK, and
  2. The beginning of the work of an OPCW investigation team, in the Syrian city of Douma where there are claims of a chemical weapons attack.

I will only discuss the OPCW report resulting from the UK request on the Salisbury poisonings – and then only the summary of the report. The UK agreed to declassify the summary but not the full report. We will have to wait until another member state releases the full report – if they ever do. I understand it is “voluminous.”


It’s only two pages long and really only contains two important paragraphs worth discussing.

Confirmation of UK findings on “identity of the toxic chemical”

This was all the UK requested of the OPCW – that they provide an independent confirmation of the UK findings on the toxic chemical used. Unfortunately the OPCW was not given the mandate to make a full investigation of the incident (as they are now doing in Douma, Syria).

So their findings are (apparently) summarised in paragraph 10:

“The results of analysis by the OPCW designated laboratories of environmental and biomedical samples collected by the OPCW team confirm the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical that was used in Salisbury and severely injured three people. “

I have two comments on this paragraph.

1: It has been widely misreported. Ideologically driven news media have widely extended the “confirmation” to the UK narrative – the claim that a specific “novichock-type” chemical was used, that it originated in Russia – or even to claim that the OPCW is confirming the whole UK political story. The politicians have, of course, encouraged these misinterpretations. Boris Johnson, UK Foreign Secretary, has claimed a confirmation that the chemical “was a military grade nerve agent – a Novichok,”  (wrong) and that “there remains no alternative explanation about who was responsible – only Russia has the means, motive and record “(see Salisbury incident: Foreign Secretary statement on OPCW report).

Oh well, you know how to detect when politicians are lying, don’t you? Well, we should add “when they give a press release” to “their lips moving.”

An example of media misrepresentation is this from the Wall Stree Journal –  The report puts beyond doubt that it was highly likely Russia carried out the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, using a nerve agent “of high purity”

This is just another example of fake news – especially considering that the UK simply asked for confirmation of their findings on the identity of the chemical used.

2: This paragraph does not actually identify the toxic chemical. It simply confirms the UK findings, without saying what these were. And it goes on to say in paragraph 12:

“The name and structure of the identified toxic chemical are contained in the full classified report of the Secretariat, available to States Parties.”

That is not much use, is it? Apparently they do have specific information about the toxic chemical but they are going to keep it secret. or more specifically the UK is because they could have allowed declassification of the whole report – in the “interests of the transparency” that Boris Johnson claims to support.

Well, let’s look further into this summary to see if we can get an idea of what exactly the OPCW is confirming.

The toxic chemical “identified by the UK”

The most informative section of the summary for this is paragraph 7:

“The team was briefed on the identity of the toxic chemical identified by the United Kingdom and was able to review analytical results and data from chemical analysis of biomedical samples collected by the British authorities from the affected individuals, as well as from environmental samples collected on site.”

Seriously! We are told that the OPCW investigation confirmed the UK expert findings – but we are not told what those findings are – unless we have a security clearance!

I agree – we can vaguely infer what those findings are from the statements of politicians like Theresa May and Boris Johnson. But, as a chemist and not a politician, I would actually like to know what the expert findings of the scientists at Porton Down are.

Findings like these get massaged when they are transferred to politicians and then issued to the media.  Scientists are often put in the position of having their findings misrepresented, exaggerated or downplayed for political interests – and as the misrepresentation is carried out by their political masters they have no comeback. They are effectively silenced.

So, I would love to see the technical findings from the Porton Down scientists, and the technical findings of the OPCW team. Currently, I have no way of reading these unless at some stage another member state (not the UK which classified the report) releases the full document.* I sincerely hope this happens. In this respect, Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, has commented:

“We are currently engaged in a detailed study of this report, there are very interesting moments that arise from reading this document.We will in the very near future try to make them public when experts, both ours and the relevant departments, will deal with this rather voluminous document.”

At the moment all I have is a summary which is strangely very uninformative about the facts. I find its presentation circular – confirmation of the “findings” but the only revelation of the findings is to refer back to the unpublished UK “findings.” Mind you, such circular arguments are commonly used by bureaucrats involved in issues which have political consequences.

So, one step forward. The OPCW has independently confirmed the chemical and structural nature of the toxic chemical used in Salisbury. Good.

But, no specific or scientific information on the very subject the OPCW was asked to confirm – the nature of the toxic chemical used in the Salisbury poisonings.

That, in my view, is two steps back.

*Note: There is already alternative “confidential” information circulating in the media that the Swiss laboratory involved in the “confirmation” of the toxic chemical in the UK samples produced results not mentioned in the OPCW report. These sort of rumours will inevitably continue while the full report remains secret.

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4 responses to “OPCW on Salisbury poisoning – one step forward, two back?

  1. Ken
    We have now been told , or rather it is implied that the document Lavrov is in receipt of ( the Swiiss lab report) may very well be a forgery. The lab says it is formulated in a way no reputable lab would use.
    So perhaps someone has fed Lavrov a red herring to further sully Russia
    From your point of view, is it credible that BZ would be used as a “control” in the manner asserted?
    And apparently 2 labs report the BZ,2 don’t, at least thats what I’ve read somewhere , I’ll track it down if you want.
    The OPCW is now saying, it seems to me , that Novichok is far more stable than previously thought.(Presumably because the traces are still present in the environmental samples after , what was it, 17 days of rain and snow and fog)
    Is that really a scientific statement?It is accepting the premise that the novichok was applied to the doorknob on about the 4th March, and accepts the British position and scenario without question
    Will the report be made public and subject to peer review?
    I’m interested in the biosamples for what they show of the metabolites etc, and also the medical records of the 3 patients
    I’m sorry , I am still wary of the OPCW, knowing what intense political pressure is brought to bear on organisations to toe the official line
    Do you think that there are any valid reasons whatsoever to classify portions of the OPCW?
    As knowledge and recipes for novichok seem to be well in the public sphere
    Sorry Ken, this is long and rambling
    What do you think of this comment on the
    Craig Murray blog?

    April 18, 2018 at 20:29
    “To my shame I haven’t read the OPCW report yet, however according to the UK ambassador at the UNSC:

    2 labs examined the environmental samples
    2 labs examined the biomedical samples

    2 labs reported finding variants of BZ as spiked in controls. I am guessing that the OPCW decided to spike in BZ only into the biomedical samples, because…..because…because….they just did, OK?

    The environmental samples don’t have BZ traces….cough splutter cough….BZ spiked in as a control. This would support my view that the environmental samples are just A-234 that was sprayed around places where the Skripals visited that day – it has nothing material to do with what took place.

    Given Salisbury seems to about bulldoze everywhere A-234 was sprayed, it looks like DS Nick Bailey might have been a little too enthusiastic in his efforts.”
    I don’t have any scientific background
    I’d love it if you could clarify whats going on here.


  2. I haven’t seen anything specific from the Swiss lab – simply a referral to the OPCW. Have you a link to some official comment from them?

    I really cannot understand why another compound, especially a dangerous one, would be used as an internal standard. But in these sort of matters, I would like to see the scientific report rather than relying on political statements or social media rumours.

    This whole issue annoys me as the published OPCW summary is so circular as to appear shifty. The only slightly “official” description of the Porton Down findings I can find are the statements made in the court when permission was sought for the OPCW to take blood samples. And that is pretty vague regarding the chemical identity – I really don’t think Porton Down has enough data or evidence to be specific.

    I am also annoyed that we are not getting to see the full report from the OPCW. If Porton Down and the OPCW released their full, uncensored, reports this would go a long way to stopping unwarranted speculation – although it may not help the UK’s political case.

    Also, the fact that information and samples are not made available to the Russian Federation is very suspicious. It tells me that they are not really confident with their political claims. Such secrecy would not be accepted in a real criminal case.

    What worries me is that the classification of the OPCW report probably has more to do with reputation (political and scientific) rather than revealing chemical structures. Although the OPCW might want to keep secret that their approved labs maintain stocks of these chemicals. I think the UK would also want to keep that secret as it is not beyond possibility for Porton Down to be a source of the guilty chemical – this sort of thing has happened before. But it just seems completely natural and justified that designated labs should have such samples for forensic purposes.

    There are a lot of comments on social media – some of them very thoughtful – but I haven’t kept up with them. I am trying to keep an open mind until I can see what the report actually does say (and, yes, I realise that even then minority information will not have made it into the final report).

    As for the OPCW – I also don’t trust them – but like the UN and UNSC, they are probably the best we can expect. Recent statements by the UK and US representatives at the OPCW have misrepresented the secretary general statements regarding the Douma investigation. I have also found previous reports from the OPCW (and especially the last JIM report) on Syria rather shoddy. They tend to rely on unverified claims and make excuses for the lack of on-site inspections.

    I think it must be a constant struggle to achieve things in these multinational organisations. The Russian Federation has been trying to get broader representation on the investigation teams, guaranteed on-site inspections and for the final decision of culpability to be made by the UNSC, not officials of the JIM. But FUKUS presents that as the Russians attempting to control the investigation – while in practice they manipulate them in the background.


  3. This is all I could find

    Click to access 58th_Meeting_of_the_Executive_Council_Statement_delivered_by_Ms._Nadine_Olivieri_Lozano_Deputy_Permanent_Representative_of_Switzerland_to_the_OPCW.pdf

    From MoonofAlabama
    According to Lavrov this is what the Spiez Laboratory originally sent to the OPCW:

    “Following our analysis, the samples indicate traces of the toxic chemical BZ and its precursor which are second category chemical weapons. BZ is a nerve toxic agent, which temporarily disables a person. The psycho toxic effect is achieved within 30 to 60 minutes after its use and lasts for up to four days. This composition was in operational service in the armies of the US, the UK and other NATO countries. The Soviet Union and Russia neither designed nor stored such chemical agents. Also, the samples indicate the presence of type A-234 nerve agent in its virgin state and also products of its degradation.”
    You know, that really looks like bait doesn’t it but who sent a fake report to Lavrov?Who would know about the BZ? and deliberately slip this info to discredit the Russians?Lavrov clearly didn’t make this up , how could he?
    Until professionals like you see the methodologies and all the data and workings,sort of peer review, how can we trust the conclusions?

    “A scientist of the former Russian chemical weapon program who worked with similar agents, Leonid Rink, says that if the Skripals had really been exposed to such high purity A-234 nerve agent, they would be dead.”

    And you know what Ken .The UK has asked Russia questions akin to when did you stop beating your wife?And berated them for not answering
    But not once have they said”Whats the antidote?”


  4. Yes, these are statements made by politicians. How the UK representative can think he is qualified to make a ruling on the stability of an undefined compound is beyond me.

    As for the Swiss report Lavrov was given – I imagine it was more of some sort of document from a whistleblower than the actual report sent to the OPCW. But, then again how are we to know.

    It is also disingenuous for politicians to call on the Russian Federation to cooperate with the UK when the UK refuses to cooperate, provide any evidence or materials. As you say, the only cooperation the UK has offered is to pose the question which specific wife will you stop beating – a knowing manufacture of chemical weapons used to kill people or the accidental release to criminal elements.

    The fact is that if the UK honestly believes the Russian Federation has a secret programme at a particular plant as Boris Johnson claims then they should ask for an immediate investigation (they have a responsibility to do this) – and the Russian Federation as a signatory is obliged to allow that investigation. The fact that Boris Johnson does not take this sep indicates to me that they have no such evidence – they are lying.

    If this poisoning resulted from the accidental loss or stealing of material in the past (which I think is feasible)- then the UK should cooperate with the Russian Federation to check this out and to make sure there is no possibility of it happening again. The hostility they are promoting will not solve this problem – if it exists.

    Either way, the UK refusal to cooperate is suspicious.

    These political ambitions are what is preventing the release of any objective reports – and I cannot imagine to what degree the political demands are hampering the UK’s own investigations.


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