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expert reaction to OPCW confirming that Novichok was the chemical used in the Salisbury spy poisoning

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has completed its independent analysis of the chemical substance used in the Salisbury attack and has confirmed it was from the novichok family of nerve agents.


Prof Laurence Harwood, Professor of Organic Chemistry and Director of the University of Reading Chemical Analysis Facility, University of Reading, said:

“The OPCW summary report completely vindicates the United Kingdom’s analysis and identification of the nerve agent used in Salisbury.

“Moreover, the OPCW summary goes on to say “the toxic chemical was of high purity”, which rules out the (unlikely) possibility that it had been synthesized by a third party.

“This renders it beyond any possible doubt that the source of the nerve agent, named as a member of the Novichok family by the United Kingdom, is Russia.”


Prof Gary Stephens, Director of Pharmacology at the University of Reading, said:

“The headline is that the OPCW statement provides independent verification of the Porton Down analysis; however, like Porton Down this is confined to identification of the substance (and not where it originated).

“The OPCW states that their work included analysis of acetylcholinesterase status since hospitalisation, this is in agreement with the use of a nerve agent that targets this enzyme as proposed.

“The OPCW had access to blood samples, which were consistent with exposure of the patients to a nerve agent which got into the bloodstream and caused the reported effects, and also conducted on-site sampling of environmental samples, which was consistent with presence of the same nerve agent at these sites. Thus, environmental and biomedical data are consistent with presence and patient exposure to a nerve agent.

“Perhaps most interesting is the statement that the chemical almost completely lacked impurities, this would support the proposal that a state nation initially produced the chemical; however, the lack of impurities reduces the possibility of identifying the origin of production from a chemical perspective.

“Finally, the statement confirms that the UK and OPCW are in agreement on the name and structure of the identified toxic chemical, but that this remains confidential, but is available to States Parties.”


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

“Having received vindication of its position, the UK may now wish to give other state parties time to consider the implications of the latest findings and reach a consensus on how to proceed. The fact that a new, previously unknown nerve agent has been used against a signatory of the CWC may eventually mean that this chemical, and closely related analogues, ought to be listed in the schedules of highly restricted chemicals under the CWC. This last procedure would require discussions about amending the list of chemicals included on the schedules.

“The high purity of the substance will strengthen the UK’s position that the agent was made by a highly proficient team and in a well refined process.

“The picture that has emerged today will not add to the police investigation but it confirms the nature of the agent they are dealing with.”


Declared interests

None received.

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