What we know about Novichok, the ‘newby’ nerve agents linked to Russia


Martin Boland, Charles Darwin University

A Soviet-designed “Novichok” chemical is the nerve agent responsible for poisoning a former spy and his daughter, British Prime Minister Theresa May said today.

Sergei and Julia Skripal were found collapsed on a park bench on Sunday March 4 in the English town of Salisbury, a few hours after eating lunch and spending time at a restaurant and pub nearby.

As reported by the BBC, May said the UK must stand ready to take “extensive measures” if Russia does not provide an adequate explanation for the use of this agent on British soil.




Read more:
Nerve agents: what are they and how do they work?


What are the origins of Novichok?

The Novichok group of molecules are nerve agents developed by the Soviets from the late 1970’s – but never produced on a large scale, at least to the best of public knowledge. They are referred to as third generation nerve agents to indicate their production as a follow-on to the G-series agents such as sarin (also referred to as “GB”) developed in Germany prior to WWII, and the V-series agents (such as VX gas) first developed by the UK in the 1950’s.

The name “Novichok” translates colloquially from Russian as “newbies”.

Scientists who worked on the Novichok project disclosed details from 1992 onwards. They stated that the project goals included developing weapons that:

  • could not be detected by the then standard NATO chemical weapons detection sensors

  • have potential to circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention

  • would be easier to produce using methods and materials prevalent in pesticides industries

  • were designed from the outset to be “binary” chemical weapons (where two relatively non-toxic materials are mixed together just before dispersal to minimise the danger to the personnel delivering the weapons).

How would Novichok use be confirmed?

Members of the public said that Julie Skripal appeared passed out on the park bench in Salisbury, and her father was making strange movements with his hand. The two remain in a critical condition in hospital.

Nerve agents like Novichok are all organophosphate compounds, which act by blocking the normal processes that control nerve activity.

Symptoms are given the mnemonic “SLUGEM”:

  • Salivation – the famous “foaming at the mouth”

  • Lacrimation – “crying”, or tears pouring from the eyes

  • Urination, Defecation

  • Gastrointestinal distress

  • Emesis (vomiting) – as the body loses control over muscles, particularly those of the sphincters

  • Miosis – one of the key diagnostics; the muscles that cause the pupil to constrict become fully activated and the pupils become pinpoints in the iris.

The final “‘M” is sometimes given as “muscle spasms”. The type of spasms associated with organophosphate poisoning are somewhat diagnostic.

Although some of these symptoms are common with other nervous system disruptions, doctors are taught to look for these symptoms together as a sign of exposure to organophosphates.




Read more:
Explainer: what is VX nerve agent and how does it work?


Apart from the physical signs and symptoms, to confirm identity of the agent, police and doctors take blood or other fluid samples, or wipe the patient’s skin with a gauze to pick up any residue of the agent. Those samples are reasonably stable and could be sent to an analytical chemistry laboratory for identification.

The UK has an Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) designated laboratory run by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Chemical and Biological Systems. The lab is located at Porton Down, around 10 miles from the scene of the attack.

In Australia, the equivalent OPCW designated laboratory is operated by the Defence Science and Technology Group.

The Handbook of Recommended Operating Procedures for Analysis in the Verification of Chemical Disarmament (also known as “the Blue Book”) does not have a specific method for detecting Novichok agents. However, it would be reasonable to assume that they would be detectable by the methods available to a well equipped defence science laboratory.

How could Novichok have been administered?

Nerve agents such as sarin are typically used in the form of a gas or vapour. But Novichok agents can be made in a solid form, most likely a powder. This would make them a relatively simple agent to be used on a battlefield (as may have been the original design motivation), or to add to food or to be left in a home as may be the case with the Skripals.

Nerve agents are bioavailable from the gut – that is, they can absorb into the body after being eaten. That route of delivery isn’t well studied, but is consistent with the slightly slower onset of symptoms in Sergei and Julia Skripal.

In comparison, nerve agents administered via aerosol or spray are effective very quickly – Kim Jong-Nam died shortly after facial exposure to nerve agent VX in a Malaysian airport.

Novichok agents are said to be particularly effective at penetrating the central nervous system (that is, the brain and spinal column) and causing more severe neurological symptoms than is typical for other nerve agents.

As well as Sergei and Julia Skripal, a policeman has become seriously ill as a result of this incident – it’s not clear whether this was through attending to the sick pair on the bench, or visiting Sergei Skripal’s house.

Furthermore, the UK government has issued a public health advisory notice for people who were in the pub and/or the restaurant at which the Skripals may have been poisoned. For people who may have been exposed to very small amounts of Novichok, the advised washing of clothing would act to dilute or deactivate the compounds.




Read more:
Russia not so much a (re)rising superpower as a skilled strategic spoiler


Will the ex-spy and his daughter survive?

A reported case of accidental exposure of a Russian physicist to Novichok in 1987 described the following events:

He staggered out of the room, his vision seared by brilliant colors and hallucinations. He collapsed, and the KGB took him to a hospital.

By the time he arrived his breathing was labored. In another hour, his heart would have stopped. His entire nervous system was gradually ceasing to function.

The physicist was lucky. The hospital he was taken to, the Sklifosovsky Institute, includes the nation’s top center for poison treatment.

There, Dr. Yevgeny Vedernikov saved his life.

But the scientist was at the edge of death, unaware of his surroundings, for 10 days. He couldn’t walk for six months. He was dogged by depression and an inability to concentrate. He found it difficult even to read. To this day his arms are still weak, and he has never been able to return to work.

Although he survived, the gas left him with permanent disabilities.

This previous incident suggests that while the Skripals could theoretically recover, they may not be in a fit state to act as reliable witnesses to their own attempted murders.

The question of who was responsible will remain – although British Prime Minister May has come to the conclusion that,

Either this was a direct action by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

The ConversationWe’re waiting for an official Russian response.

Martin Boland, Senior Lecturer of Medicinal and Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Charles Darwin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Manchester, ritual emotion and the healing power of song


Samantha Dieckmann, University of Melbourne and Jane Davidson, University of Melbourne

On Sunday, Ariana Grande played to a packed house of 60,000 fans at Manchester’s Old Trafford Cricket Ground, in tribute to the 22 people killed at Grande’s Dangerous Woman concert in the same city two weeks ago. She was joined on stage by pop stars including Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Pharrell Williams.

One Love Manchester aimed to counter the effects of terrorism by spreading messages of unity and love through music, harnessing pop as a personal and collective coping mechanism in the face of tragedy. But in troubled times, can music really heal?

The Manchester bombing is the latest in a line of assaults on entertainment venues, including the attack on the Eagles of Death Metal concert at Paris’s Bataclan Theatre in 2015, and at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, last year. These are seemingly inspired by a desire to curtail Western liberal freedoms, and specifically the freedom of women, the gay community and the young people who are celebrated in pop music.

Given the sentiment of the event, Grande drew some backlash on Twitter for performing her risqué song Side to Side. But as she revealed during the concert, she had changed her set list after talking with the mother of 15-year-old Olivia, who was killed in the bombing. During their emotional meeting, Olivia’s mum said that she “would’ve wanted to hear the hits”.

Evidence shows that bereaved families increasingly choose to commemorate loved ones with contemporary songs with which they, or the deceased, personally identify.
An Australian funeral services provider reported Queen’s The Show Must Go On or Another One Bites the Dust were increasingly popular funeral songs. In the same way, pop concerts are built on a known repertoire of songs, which the audience predicts. This assists in the ritual communication of emotion.

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It was music’s capacity to arouse different emotions that allowed One Love Manchester to achieve Grande’s aim for her concerts to be, “a place for them to escape, to celebrate, to heal, to feel safe and to be themselves.” It is now well established that mechanisms such as rhythm, shared emotions and the memory of specific events make music a powerful tool for connecting with other people.

Pharrell Williams’ upbeat Happy embodied the concert’s defiant stance on terrorism, suggesting that fear can be triumphantly overcome through the enactment of happiness and joy. Coldplay’s touching performance of Fix You allowed for the expression of mourning and collective grief.

Robbie Williams led the audience in a version of his song Strong, changing the lyrics to, “Manchester we’re strong, we’re strong”. Cultural studies theorist Graeme Turner has argued that this sort of sharing brings with it a temporary experience of equality and comradeship between many people.

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Black Eyed Peas’ Where is the Love?, inspired by the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, has become an anthem for countering terrorism and related anti-Islamic sentiment. It provided the Manchester audience with an emotional bridge to the larger, global community of those affected by terrorism.

The ConversationWe need to do more research to understand how these shared emotions and experiences can be galvanised to create longer-term resilience and solidarity. But for this night, One Love Manchester demonstrated the power of music to heal an urban community and bring people together.

Samantha Dieckmann, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Music, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, University of Melbourne and Jane Davidson, Deputy Director ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

As Britain reels from another terror attack, political leaders wobble towards an election


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Floral tributes near an an anti-Islamic State poster near Borough market, London.
AAP/Andy Rain

Jim Middleton, University of Melbourne

Legitimate questions certainly arise from the weekend outrage in London, but they are not those immediately provoked by Pauline Hanson or Donald Trump.

The US president’s impetuous reaction was to tweet that the attack on London Bridge and the Borough Market proved that American courts should “give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” Note the exemplary use of the exclamation mark. However, Trump did have the grace eight minutes later to offer a form of condolence to the British people – “WE ARE WITH YOU. GOD BLESS!”

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The capitals presumably mean either that he was shouting or that he really means it. Not so the One Nation leader, who chose to use Twitter to desecrate the warning from the British authorities for people to “run, hide and tell” by declaring that it was time to “stop Islamic immigration before it is too late”.

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Labor’s Penny Wong rightly declared Hanson’s eructation “irresponsible and crass”. One of Australia’s foremost counter-terrorism experts, Greg Barton of Deakin University, went further, telling me that what the One Nation leader was saying was “downright dangerous” on at least two counts.

One, in this age of postmodern terrorism, Islamic State operates as the first metaphysical nation with no dependence on physical territory or traditional communication to wield its power. In that environment, the security authorities rely on tips from the communities from which impressionable operatives emerge.

Maligning those very communities, Barton says, tends to make its members turn inward, reducing their trust in the authorities and diminishing the likelihood that they will report the wayward behaviour of people they know. Witness the bizarre spectacle of the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, praying loudly in the street.

Second, it encourages the very sense of alienation, the feeling that they are stigmatised outsiders, that leads people to lose their sense of belonging. That makes them more vulnerable to the brutal siren call of murderous extremists.

Hanson either does not know this or does not care, because it is likely that her anti-Muslim message, basically a reworking of her initial hostility to Aborigines and then to Asians, appeals to much of One Nation’s base. What more would you expect from a person who over two decades has used the public purse to turn politics into a highly successful small business?

There are legitimate questions, though, about this latest attack in the UK, the third in as many months. One is whether Britain has a peculiar problem when it comes to these apparently autonomous acts of ghastly violence. The other is whether the London Bridge/Borough Market attack had anything to do with the UK election, now only days away.

The answer to the latter is probably not. As Barton points out, if the perpetrators had wanted to influence voters, they or their sponsors would have made a statement to that effect in some form, either direct or allusive.

That is not to say that the violence of Saturday night won’t affect the result of Thursday’s poll. Conventional analysis has it that assaults on security tend to favour the incumbent, especially if they are from the centre right.

Theresa May’s Tories consistently poll as “better for” national security than Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. But this has not been a conventional UK election campaign and there are also questions about whether a sense may take root within the electorate that the government is failing to protect the community, following two fatal acts of terrorism in just a fortnight – Manchester and now London. May was, after all, home secretary, responsible for domestic security, for six years before she became prime minister.

She has not had a good election. Gone are the days, less than two months ago, when it looked as if she could gain a majority of 100 in the House of Commons, knocking Corbyn for six. Her refusal to engage with Corbyn was seen as arrogant, and UK voters are sick of going to the polls (three times in less than two years). There was also her blunder on a “dementia” tax, essentially a proposal to make the elderly contribute to their health care if they have combined assets of more than £100,000.

Immediate public outcry forced a U-turn, but the damage had been done. As campaign managers would say, May had gone “off-message”. The election was no longer a plebiscite on her managing of Brexit, but an argument about health and welfare, traditional Labour turf.

It was a surprising mistake, especially given that as a political up-and-comer May warned the Conservatives back in 2002 that it had become the “nasty party”. Its base was “too narrow” and on occasion so were its sympathies, a sermon this child of the manse had clearly forgotten delivering.

On the question of security, the message from the voters is decidedly mixed. In the wake of the Manchester attack Corbyn boldly, but deliberately, stated:

Many … professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported … and terrorism here at home.

From the G7 summit, May went thermonuclear:

I have been here with the G7, working with other international leaders to fight terrorism. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault.

Corbyn was “not up to the job”, she said. He also faced criticism from within his own ranks, but it seems May’s decision to play the security card was not as effective as she might have hoped, because the opinion polls continued to tighten in Labour’s favour.

None of this means May will lose when the votes come in on Thursday. Rather, it shows that national security is a more complex issue in the UK these days, after a decade and a half of unpopular wars and years punctuated by regular, fatal terrorist attacks.

The ConversationIt is not clear whether the story is the same in either the United States or Australia. It is possible this is one way the UK is grimly unique.

Jim Middleton, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Terror in London: Western cities will always be vulnerable to these attacks



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Five people are dead – including the perpetrator – following a terror attack in London.
EPA/Andy Rain

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Just when the Western world had absorbed the shock of a truck attack in Berlin in December that claimed 12 lives, it is reminded again of the dangers of “lone-wolf” attacks inspired by Islamic State (IS) that are almost impossible to guard against. The Conversation

When a sole attacker drove randomly across London’s Westminster Bridge towards the Houses of Parliament – one of the most trafficked thoroughfares in the Western world – killing and maiming innocent bystanders, it served as a reminder, if that were required, that open, global cities are vulnerable to such attacks.

These are moments that serve as a reality check for those in authority who are striving to maintain a balance between oppressive policing and surveillance and a free society. This is enormously challenging in an environment in which strains of fanaticism have been let loose.

Regrettably, the London terrorist attack leading to five deaths, including the perpetrator and a policeman, will find its way into a racially tinged political discourse – and not in a way that will be particularly edifying.

But there is also no point in pretending that mayhem in the Middle East can be separated from what takes place on the streets of London or Brussels or Berlin or Nice, or in other places that become victims of continuing upheaval in a crescent that stretches from the Mediterranean to South Asia.

Now that the weapon of choice for lone-wolf terrorists seems to have become a vehicle to mow down people innocently going about their business, a policing task becomes even more difficult.

Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert, noted in a post for CNN that as long ago as 2010, al Qaeda’s Yemen branch had encouraged its recruits in the West to use vehicles as weapons.

A headline on its webzine, Inspire, had described vehicles as “the ultimate mowing nachine” – not to “mow grass, but mow down the enemies of Allah”. He wrote:

These attacks are hard to defend against in free societies where crowds will gather, as was the case for Bastille Day in Nice, or the Christmas market in Berlin … and now throngs of tourists and visitors that typically crowd the sidewalks around the Houses of Parliament.

The utter cynicism and brutality of these random low-tech attacks pose enormous challenges for security.

This latest episode will not be the last such vehicle attack with the possibility that something much worse might eventuate, including the detonation of a truck packed with explosives and shards of shrapnel. Open Western cities will always be vulnerable to these sorts of attacks.

The threat of IS-inspired terrorism is now embedded in Western societies. It is no good pretending it is not.

Since 2014, when IS proclaimed its caliphate, there have been more than 70 terrorist attacks “conducted or inspired” by its followers in 20 countries (not including Syria and Iraq), according to a running total kept by CNN.

If Syria and Iraq were added, such terrorist attacks would number in the hundreds.

In 2014, CNN lists seven terrorist incidents, including the stabbing of two Australian police officers in New South Wales. Six died and 12 were injured in 2014, in Belgium, Australia, Canada, the US and France.

That was the beginning.

By 2016, the numbers of casualties from IS-inspired terrorism had risen sharply across the Middle East and in Europe. This included the Brussels bombings at a metro station and an airport, in which 32 people died and 340 were injured.

It is not least of macabre coincidences that the London terrorist attack occurred on the first anniversary to the day of the Brussels bombings.

So far this year, there have been five major incidents. Most, if not all, are linked to IS.

London was the first such episode in continental Europe. The others occurred in Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Out of all this, it is a depressing conclusion, but as IS in its strongholds in Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria is further degraded, chances are it will step up its terrorist activities elsewhere.

In other words, risks to countries involved in the war against IS will rise as its fortunes in its so-called caliphate slide. IS is on the ropes in its Middle Eastern strongholds. This makes it more dangerous to Western interests.

In London, and among Britain’s allies, political leaders have hastened to express solidarity, but all would be aware that such ritualistic professions of support and concern will not provide a foolproof shield against the next Islamist-inspired terrorist attack.

The question is not if, but when and where.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

7:7: One Day in London


The videos below are both of the same documentary on the 7:7 2005 terrorist attacks in London. The documentary is a very moving account of people caught up in those terrible attacks ten years ago.

https://vimeo.com/81994794