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expert reaction to news that Wiltshire pair were poisoned by Novichok nerve agent

A man and woman found unconscious in Wiltshire were exposed to Novichok – the same nerve agent that poisoned ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal, police are reporting.

 

Prof Oliver Jones, Associate Professor of Analytical Chemistry, RMIT University, Melbourne Australia, said:

“Little is really known of the various forms of Novichok agents; Russian scientists have revealed some information and they have been made in a limited number of countries (though not the UK) for research purposes, although after the Skripals poisoning the purity and grade of this Novichok led the OPCW to conclude it had originated from Russia.  We do know the chemical structure and how to detect them via chromatography and mass spectrometry (which can be thought of as a kind of fingerprinting technique for chemicals).

“While this latest case is worrying, and no doubt highly traumatic for those involved (whom I hope will hopefully recover quickly), since there was a four month gap between the two cases it does seem more likely the latest victims somehow handled some form of contaminated item rather than came across anything that had been lying around in the open since the first incident.  This would indicate that the risk to the general public is low.

“Frankly however, this is a very baffling case with many more questions than answers.  While there are many theories, we still don’t really have any proof of exactly who poisoned the Skripals or why – let alone what is behind the latest event.  I am sure there is plenty we don’t know and indeed may never know as to how, when and why this nerve agent from the Cold War ended up in Wiltshire.”

 

Dr Michelle Carlin, Senior lecturer in forensic & analytical chemistry, Northumbria University, said:

“This case of Novichok agent poisoning in Wiltshire is surprising.  From the information we now have available to us, it is believed that the couple have handled a contaminated item which may have been discarded after the initial nerve agent poisoning case involving the Skripals.

“This appears to be a case of accidental poisoning, however since we have limited information regarding the degradation of Novichok agents or their longevity if left untouched in the environment, it is not possible to say for certain at this moment in time if the Novichok is from the original source, or not.

“In terms of decontamination, we have seen that when the contaminated areas were identified in Salisbury, speedy action was taken to ensure the public were safe and that these areas were cordoned off and decontaminated as soon as possible.  As we have seen, this was clearly successful as there have been no subsequent cases resulting from the original cordoned areas in Salisbury after the Skripal poisoning.

“I am confident that this couple will be receiving the best possible care by medical staff who have recently successfully treated the Skripals.  Hopefully, they will have the same outcome.”

 

Comments sent out on Thursday 5 July:

Prof Alastair Hay, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Toxicology, University of Leeds, said:

“There is no specific method for detection for Novichoks in the environment – there are chemical agent monitors for various nerve agents which can be used, but nothing which will identify Novichoks as they were not considered likely chemical weapons when the monitors were designed.  To detect contamination, the authorities will be taking soil and vegetation samples from sites then extracting materials into a solvent, cleaning up the sample and putting it through a separation system into gas or liquid chromatography, then into a mass spectrometer where it will be separated into fragments – these fragments provide the fingerprint of the nerve agent.  This will have been how the Novichok was identified as the substance responsible here.

“In terms of identifying possible areas of contamination, the approach would be to identify an area of possible contamination, construct a grid for representative sampling, then hone in on areas that come back as ‘hot’.

“In public areas after the Skripal poisonings they will have done extensive sampling to ensure the areas they looked at were clean.

“We don’t know much about the degradation of Novichoks in the environment.  There is lots of information on better-known nerve agents like sarin and VX.  What we did learn from the Skripal poisoning is that Novichoks is resistant to breakdown in the body, which is why recovery took a long time, and this probably means it will also be quite resistant to breakdown in the environment.  But in general we have virtually no data on how Novichoks degrade.

“It doesn’t surprise me that if the agent is still present it would still be potent, even some months later, because from what we know it is quite resistant to breakdown.

“We don’t yet know how these two people came into contact with the substance, but if it was in a container of some kind it would have been much more persistent than if it had been environmental contamination.  Purity also helps ensure longevity – and we know from the Skripals case that the agent they were exposed to was highly pure.  During their manufacture, stabilisers can also be added to nerve agents to increase their stability further, but we don’t know if that was done in this case.

“In the environment, high temperatures increase the rate of breakdown of these substances because they evaporate and disappear – but Novichoks are not particularly volatile.  Water also breaks down nerve agents by the process of hydrolysis.  It might be that hydrolysis is slower with Novichoks – we just don’t know.

“With these two individuals who came into contact with the nerve agent over the weekend, it seems likely that it was some sort of skin contact – this would explain the delay in symptoms of some hours.  Vapour contact and inhalation is less likely in my view, as the onset of symptoms would have been more rapid.  There is a possibility of ingestion, but we don’t know – onset of symptoms following ingestion would be somewhere between that of inhalation and skin contact.

“What police and the authorities will be currently doing is tracing the likely movements of these two individuals – this is the most sensible way of tracking where their contamination occurred.  They will be doing this as fast as they can, but it will take time.

“The risk for the people of Wiltshire going about their daily business is low.  The government’s advice to those who were in one of the areas identified between the times identified to wash their clothes with warm water and detergent and wipe down possessions with wipes is sensible as that will help degrade any contamination with small amounts of nerve agent.”

 

Prof Alastair Hay, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Toxicology, University of Leeds, said:

“The specific action of a nerve agent is to block the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which regulates messages down nerves and at junctions between nerves and muscle.  So nerve agent poisoning prevents and interferes with lots of essential body processes.  The body is always making new acetylcholinesterase, and treatment involves supporting the essential functions of the body while that process hopefully happens.

“Treatment for nerve agent poisoning is well known, and involves giving the antidote atropine to counteract the effect of the nerve agent at certain nerve-muscle junctions; treatment with an oxine (the specific one for a Novichok-type nerve agent is unknown although of course this might have been learned during the treatment of the Skripals); and treatment to prevent seizures with an anticonvulsant like diazepam.  Atropine, oxines and diazepam are standard, recognised treatments for nerve agent poisoning.  The consequences of being exposed to a nerve agent include the risk of heart attack and damage to the brain through poor oxygenation, so it is essential to prevent that from happening in these two patients.  Given that the individuals’ breathing will likely have been seriously impaired, both through the failure of normal muscle action and the secretion of fluids into the lungs, it will have been important to ensure the drainage of fluid from the lungs, and to give treatment to prevent fluid going into the lungs (which atropine will prevent).  It is very likely that the pair will also need their breathing to be assisted in hospital.  It is possible that the pair will be being kept sedated for some time to prevent overactivity of nerves in the brain, to prevent seizures and other damage.”

 

Dr Chris Morris, Medical Toxicology Centre, Newcastle University, said:

“It’s difficult to know how the two people have become exposed to the agent until the Police and Counter Terrorism Policing Network have completed their investigations.

“Given the rarity of the agent in question, it’s possible that this was from the same source as was used previously.  This will however only be confirmed once detailed analysis of the material takes place.

“The public are likely to be at low risk from this development, and the Chief Medical Officer is right in indicating that the risk to the public is low.

“Since the two individuals are being looked after in the only place with experience of successfully treating patients exposed to these agents, there’s every reason to believe that the outcome for both will be good.  As similar supportive care will have been applied very quickly through the responding paramedics and the emergency clinical team at the hospital, and the treatment provided previously will be known, the results will hopefully be good.”

 

Prof Alastair Hay, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Toxicology, University of Leeds, said:

“It is hard to believe that we have a further two cases of poisoning with a Novichok-type agent.

“This is a nerve agent and it is one that doctors in Salisbury now have more experience than any in how to treat.  None of the doctors would have expected to be treating another Novichok poisoning and certainly not one so soon after the poisoning of the Skripals.

“Clearly, one of the principal tasks now is to identify how and where the latest poisoning occurred.  This is necessary for evidentiary purposes, but also to reassure the public.

“The Chief Medical Officer’s advice to those concerned to wash clothes and wipe down personal items with baby wipes, and that people don’t need to seek medical advice unless they are experiencing symptoms, is, as she said herself, prudent and practical.  It would be sensible to follow this guidance.

“It is also a fact that if others had come into contact with the agent, they too would have had the characteristic signs and symptoms.  In the absence of these they should feel reassured about the places they visit routinely.”

 

Prof Andrea Sella, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry, UCL, said:

“Confirmation that this was the same chemical agent that poisoned the Skripals really confirms a lot of things that we believed were true about this ‘novichok’ class of nerve agents.  They are designed to be quite persistent – they hang around in the environment, neither evaporating or decomposing quickly.  That means that if a container or a surface was contaminated with this material it would remain a danger for a long time and it will be vital to trace the movements of this couple to identify where they might have come into contact with the source.  So while the public at large are at very low risk from this material, until the source is found there is a remote chance that someone else might come into contact with it.

“Some people online are saying that the fact that the investigating teams are wearing hazmat suits suggests that there is something “we are not being told”, but this is a purely precautionary measure given that until a few hours ago the authorities did not know what they were dealing with.

“Given that they are being treated in the same hospital as the Skripals, the teams there now have a wealth of experience and expertise about how to manage such patients.  It is now clear that with very rapid and intensive medical intervention, the victims stand a reasonable chance of recovery.  But it is worth bearing in mind that victims of this kind of organophosphate poisoning who recover from the acute effects are likely to suffer neurological damage which may well be life-changing.”

 

Comments sent out on Wednesday 4 July:

Dr Michelle Carlin, Senior lecturer in forensic & analytical chemistry, Northumbria University, said:

“This new case of the use of Novichok agents in Wiltshire is surprising.  It is difficult to speculate whether this is from the original source used in the Skripal case however, if it was from the same source, it is unusual that it has taken four months for someone to be affected by it.  There are many factors that we are unaware of at this moment but based on the fact that the agent has been identified quickly and the hospital have successfully treated the Skripals, hopefully the pair will recover well.”

 

 

All our previous output on Novichok nerve agent and the Skripal case can be seen at this weblink:

http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/tag/Novichok-nerve-agent/

 

 

Declared interests

Prof Oliver Jones: “I have no conflicts of interest to declare.”

Dr Michelle Carlin: “I have no interests to declare.”

Dr Chris Morris: “No specific interests to declare.”

Prof Andrea Sella: “I do not have any competing interests.”

None others received.

 

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