Notes on Novichoks and the Salisbury poisonings


In the House of Commons today the Prime Minister stated that

It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. It is part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok. Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the Government have concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

Mrs May said if there is no “credible response” by the end of Tuesday, the UK would conclude there has been an “unlawful use of force” by Moscow.


Key points

  1. It’s very doubtful that these compounds are military grade nerve agents or that a Russian “Novichok” programme ever existed – if they were potentially usable as weapons, people on the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board who were in a position to know would have recommended that they be added to the list of Scheduled Chemicals. They have never been added. 


  1. “Novichok” compounds are easy to synthesize at bench scale in a modern lab – how else could Porton Down have developed a test for them? Any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound. Therefore its presence in this case is clearly not sufficient evidence of Russian culpability.  Porton Down must have been able to synthesize these compounds in order to develop tests for them.  Therefore its presence in this case is clearly not sufficient evidence of Russian culpability.


  1. The only source for the story that a new class of organophosphate compounds was developed as chemical weapons under the name Novichok in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s is from Vil Mirzayanov, a defector in the 1990s.  Mirzayanov described the chemical structures of these compounds and stated that the toxicity of an agent named Novichuk-5  “under optimal conditions exceeds the effectiveness of VX by five to eight times”.   Mirzayanov alleged that Russian testing and production had continued after signing the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993.
  2. Soviet scientists had published many papers in the open literature on the chemistry of such compounds for possible use as insecticides.  Mirzayanov claimed that “this research program was premised on the ability to hide the production of precursor chemicals under the guise of legitimate commercial chemical production of agricultural chemicals”.
  3. Mirzayanov claimed that the Novichok agents were easy to synthesize:-

One should be mindful that the chemical components or precursors of A-232 or its binary version novichok-5 are ordinary organophosphates that can be made at commercial chemical companies that manufacture such products as fertilizers and pesticides

  1. An authoritative review by Dr Robin Black, who was until recently head of the detection laboratory at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Porton Down), emphasizes that there is no independent confirmation of Mirzayanov’s claims about the chemical properties of these compounds:

In recent years, there has been much speculation that a fourth generation of nerve agents, ‘Novichoks’ (newcomer), was developed in Russia, beginning in the 1970s as part of the ‘Foliant’ programme, with the aim of finding agents that would compromise defensive countermeasures.  Information on these compounds has been sparse in the public domain, mostly originating from a dissident Russian military chemist, Vil Mirzayanov.  No independent confirmation of the structures or the properties of such compounds has been published.

  1. OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board did not take Mirzayanov’s story seriously enough to rate these compounds and their precursors as Scheduled Chemicals that should be controlled under the Chemical Weapons Convention:-

 [The SAB] emphasised that the definition of toxic chemicals in the Convention would cover all potential candidate chemicals that might be utilised as chemical weapons. Regarding new toxic chemicals not listed in the Annex on Chemicals but which may nevertheless pose a risk to the Convention, the SAB makes reference to “Novichoks”.  The name “Novichok” is used in a publication of a former Soviet scientist who reported investigating a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons. The SAB states that it has insufficient information to comment on the existence or properties of “Novichoks”.

The Scientific Advisory Board included Dr Black, and several other heads of national chemical defence laboratories in western countries.  These labs would have made their own evaluation of Mirzayanov’s claims and specifically would have done their own experiments to determine if compounds with the structures that he described were of military grade toxicity.  We can reasonably assume that if they had found that these compounds were potentially usable as chemical weapons, they would have recommended adding them to the list of Scheduled Chemicals.

  1. The Prime Minister stated that

There are, therefore, only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on 4 March: either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country; or the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

Of course there is a third possible explanation for the detection of such a compound.  As the structures of these compounds have been described, any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound, with the objective of generating a trail of evidence that would point to Russia.   Porton Down, for instance, must have been able to synthesize these compounds in order to develop tests for them.

  1. The Prime Minister stated that

My right hon. Friend [the Foreign Secretary] has stated to the ambassador that the Russian Federation must immediately provide full and complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and he has requested the Russian Government’s response by the end of tomorrow.

As noted above, there is no evidence other than the account from a single defector that a “Novichok programme” ever existed.  If a programme on the scale described by Mirzayanov had existed, we might have expected corroboration to be available by now.   As experts on the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board who are in a position to know the properties of these compounds have not recommended that they be added to the list of Scheduled Chemicals, there must be serious doubt that they are toxic enough to be usable as chemical weapons.  However Russian denials that such a programme existed will be interpreted as proof of guilt.

The Prime Minister continued

On Wednesday, we will consider in detail the response from the Russian state. Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom, and I will come back to this House to set out the full range of measures that we will take in response.


Vil S. Mirzayanov, “Dismantling the Soviet/Russian Chemical Weapons Complex: An Insider’s View,” in Amy E. Smithson, Dr. Vil S. Mirzayanov, Gen Roland Lajoie, and Michael Krepon, Chemical Weapons Disarmament in Russia: Problems and Prospects, Stimson Report No. 17, October 1995, p. 21.

OPCW: Report of the Scientific Advisory Board on developments in science and technology for the Third Review Conference 27 March 2013

Robin Black. (2016) Development, Historical Use and Properties of Chemical Warfare Agents. Royal Society of Chemistry



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  1. Second Charge of the Light Brigade –

    Light on facts, light on evidence, light on due process, light on common sense, light on diplomacy and NO light on why. Blind charge! Dark ops! Porton Down centre of Brit. secret chemical experiments a six minute drive down the road from Salisbury. Go figure.

  2. The low risk assessment carried by chemical or biological legends: Extremely low number of professionals who could assess data , while being willing to go public. Most chemists with a PHD are specialized and are not even considered advanced in the periodic table. The general public is at the mercy of the statements made which are not provable, designed much like the mandala effect and flat earth. Private sector professionals with the skill set necessary to analyze such data, would never publicly state an opinion without all necessary data. Public sector professionals are not likely to come forward, as job loss, and detention are deterrents. Risk assessment of using targeted chemical legends as assassination cover stories: Very Low.

    • High risk assessment of using known traceable chemical or biological weapons for targeted assignation: High volume of intelligence sharing dictates that a chemical compound or traceable agent that can be attributed to a geographical area or specific government is ” a calling card” . In this case, the motivation of the origin would necessitate the consideration that the act is blatant or a provocation. Using radioactive traceable material or specialized chemical compounds that can be specifically traced to the origin is: High Risk.
      This would be advisable only in situations considered advantageous to send a message as to origin.

    • Motivation assessment: Very high for Britain, USA, or Israel ,.. Very Low for Russia, Syria or any others.

      As long as any government relies on public opinion for approval of activities there is a high motivation to either adhere to the desire or subvert the opinion.

      Solution: Either, do not subvert the public desire, or provide necessary data to prove all allegations publicly.
      Civilian approval and oversight is necessary to precede. Subversion is untenable.

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