The Great Skripal Poison Mystery: What Jane Marpel Said

sergei skripal

The West points its finger at Russia, Russia points its finger at the West.  As for us, we do not really know who did it or why.  We know nothing beyond what we are told, and we can be sure that the details are being kept hidden from us.  So, faced with the mystery of who poisoned the Skripals and why, I decided to ask JaneMarpel.

For those of you who do not know Jane let me tell you something about her. She has lived all her life in the small village of St Mary Mead, about 25 miles outside of London. Interestingly enough, her home is not too far from Salisbury, where the Skripals lived  She is an old woman, who would be, like all old women, disregarded, were it not for the fact that she is one of the most brilliant detectives in the world.

Jane said she wasn’t sure if she could solve this case; after all not being physically present, not knowing the people involved, was a decided disadvantage .  But she said she would begin by researching the poison itself.  “The nature of the poison will tell you a lot about how they were poisoned.”

And so I begin the research that will consume my time for the next several days – an investigation of nerve agent, A-234, or Novichok as it is more commonly called.  I learn that it is a member of what is called the third generation of chemical weapons which have been produced in the 19th and 20th centuriesThe first generation  of CW were not developed in Russia, but rather in Germany, the United States and several other nations in connection with the combat operations of WWI.  The most famous of these was called “mustard gas”.  Their effects were permanent. There arenonpersistent CWs as well such as prussic acid, phosgene, and diphosgene.

The second generation of CW called V-gases was developed in the United States 1, Sweden and other nations in the fifties. These includeVgas an oily liquid soluble in water. It penetrates into the organism through the skin and respiratory tract. Latent period of action from a few minutes to 4-6 hours.These include Sarin, Soman, and Tabun. The molecule known as VX was first made in an Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) laboratory in the UK in 1952, and it was passed to the UK’s Porton Down Chemical Weapons Research Centre, (CLUE)and subsequently to the US government, when the UK renounced chemical weapons. Its destructive power became clear on March 13, 1968. When the substance escaped from the army’s chemical weapons proving ground and killed over 3,000 sheep grazing 27 miles away in the Skull Valley area of Utah.

It is claimed that VX was used during the Iran-Iraq war.  It was also used by theAumShinrikyo cult u to assassinate a former member of their sect in Osaka in 1994.Two young women, an Indo Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, allegedly by smearing VX nerve agent across his face in an airport in Kuala Lumpur.Sarin was the substance that was used in Syria. (CLUE)

Beginning in the twenties work on developing and producing CW was begun in the Soviet Union.  This work was part of a stable and secret sector known as the Military-chemical complex (MCC). It was located atGSNIIOKhT [State Union Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology] ].  However, the advent of third generation chemical weapons in the Soviet Union was a direct consequence of the Cold War,Binary CWs, as they are labeled, were worked on during 1973-1976 . and continued  to be developed well into the 1990s.  It was at this time and under this program that Novochik was developed.  . In Russian, novichok means “newcomer.”.

Unlike unitary CW, which  produce a toxic result in their existing state. Binary CWs are made up of two, unmixed and isolated chemicals that do not produce lethal effects until mixed.  The first product is a chemical pesticide, the second a fertilizer, both of which are legal and quite easy to obtain  Hence, the program came to be know as the “foliant” program in the USSR.(CLUE)

The “Foliant” program yielded five new types of CW. [48]. One of these (A-232, “novichok-5” [36]) turned out to be convenient for combat use in binary form (Soviet V-gas has also been made for use in binary form [43, 46, 48]).. As recently as 1990, at least three novichoks existed (novichok-5, novichok-#, and novichok-7), but whether large quantities exist today is unknown. All novichok agents are more toxic than VX. Some may be up to 10 times more toxic .Novichok is also more difficult to identify than other nerve agents.They may also work differently than other nerve agents listed here, possibly rendering existing antidotes ineffective (CLUE)

First Individuals to be poisoned by novichok.

The first two individuals to be poisoned by Novichok wereZheleznyakov and L. A. Lipasov [97], both employees in a Novochok plant.  While we have no record of what happened to Lipasov, we do have Zheleznyakov’s own testimony regarding what he suffered as a result of the poisoning.

Like his father and grandfather before him Andrei worked in the Soviet chemical weapons program.  His father, Nikolai, was the deputy head of the Soviet Union’s chemical industry

Andrei served in the Soviet army in the 1960s and afterwards entered the State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology (see above) in Moscow.   For years, he analysed nerve agents like soman and VX before they were passed on for testing on rats, dogs and monkeys.  In the 1980s, he began to create a binary of a novichok variant called A-232, a chemical weapon that Russia was furiously developing to keep pace with the west.  It was while he was working on that project that a vent opened accidentally and a small amount of the lethal novichok-5 gas escaped.This gas would be similar if not the same as that ostensibly used on the Kripals.  (CLUE)

Almost immediately he tells us “Circles appeared before my eyes: red and orange.  A ringing in my ears.  I caught my breath.  And a sense of fear: like something was about to happen” (CLUE)

Andrei Zheleznyakov told the now-defunct newspaper NovoyeVremya, describing the 1987 weapons lab incident that exposed him to a nerve agent that would eventually kill him. “I sat down on a chair and told the guys: ‘It’s got me.'”

A superior told him to drink some tea, which he promptly vomited. He was given an antidote, which was some help, and told to go home.He made it as far as Ilyich Square, (less than half an hour away) where a church “began shining and then fell to pieces,” before he collapsed and was taken to a hospital. In hospital, doctors eventually guessed at the source of the poisoning and gave Zheleznyakov atropine. The injections would save his life, but he would never fully recover, spending weeks in a coma, months unable to walk, and years suffering from deteriorating health, (CLUE)

 By 1992, when the interview was published, the nerve agent had gutted Zheleznyakov’s central nervous system. Less than a year later he was dead, after battling cirrhosis, toxic hepatitis, nerve damage and epilepsy. (CLUE)

Novichok, Zheleznyakov and Mirzayanov: When Zheleznyakov went public with his interview in 1992 he encouraged other “whistleblowers” to come forward about the dangers of the Novichok weapons.  He would be followed by, among others, VilMirzanydnov. In 1992Mirzayanov and his colleague Lev Fyodorov decided to reveal the extent of chemical weapons experimentation in Russia., They published articles both in America, in the Baltimore Sun , and in Russia in the weekly newspaper MOSKOVSKIYE NOVOSTI. In the articles they talked about the Soviet chemical weapon “Foliant” and the  newly developed CW of the “Novichok” series,

Mirzayanov was immediately fired. He was then arrested on October 22, 1992, on charges of treason.At that point the existence of Novichok agents was openly admitted by Russian authorities. According to expert witness testimonies, Novichok and other related chemical agents had indeed been produced and therefore the disclosure by Mirzayanov represented high treason.[8] However, Mirzayanov was released because “not one of the formulas or names of poisonous substances in the Moscow Newsarticlewas new to the Soviet press, nor were locations … of testing sites revealed.”[1]Surprisingly, the Russian authorities allowed him to leave for the U.S where he took a position at Rutgers University in New Jersey.  While in American he published a book in which he wrote the formula for Novichok. (CLUE)

In March 2018, just after the poisoning of Sergei and YuliaSkripal, Mirzayanov spoke about how Russia maintained tight control over its Novichok stockpile and noted that the agent is too complicated for a non-state actor to have weaponized. “. Unlike street drugs, nerve agents cannot be made in your kitchen or garden shed, on account of their toxicity, even in tiny amounts. Synthesis of nerve agents requires a specialist laboratory, with fume cupboards (CLUE)

Symptoms and treatment of N. poisoning”

Novichok can exist as both a liquid and also a powder. According to the BBC, a powdered version of the agent can take longer to act, with symptoms not appearing until as long as 18 hours after exposure. Novichok is more toxic ― and more difficult to identify ― than other nerve agents.It is  bioavailable from the gut – that is, they can absorb into the body after being eaten. That route of delivery isn’t well studied, but it could consistent with the (possible) slightly slower onset of symptoms in Sergei and Julia Skripal. (CLUE)

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.Symptomsof nerve gas poisoning 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.IT WOULD SEEM THAT, BASED ON THE OBSERVATIONS OF WITNESSES, THE SKRIPALS WERE HAVING THESE SPASMS WHEN THEY WERE FOUND. IF OTHER SYMPTOMS WERE PRESENT NO ONE COMMENTED UPON THEM.

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.

Who has and who could make it: Dan Kaszeta, a U.K.-based chemical weapons expert, told NPR this week that Novichok has long been a “deep-dark secret” that very few know how to create.“As far as I know, I don’t know anybody who knows how to make it except these guys in Russia,” Well either Kaszeta is lying or Mirzayanovis.  The fact of the matter seems to be although the formula is well known and the ingredients found in the agent are relatively accessible, turning them into the chemical weapon requires the expertise and equipment typically only found in government-level laboratories.  (CLUE).

Speaking to Sky News on Tuesday (4/3/2018), Gary Aitkenhead, chief executive of Porton Down laboratory, said the poisonous substance used to carry out the attack was the military-grade nerve agent Novichok but said scientists did not identify where it was manufactured.

“We have not identified the precise source, but we have provided the scientific info to government, who have then used a number of other sources to piece together the conclusions you have come to,” Aitkenhead said.

He added: “It is our job to provide the scientific evidence of what this particular nerve agent is. We identified that it is from this particular family and that it is a military grade, but it is not our job to say where it was manufactured.”

If we had put our clues together we would have arrived at the same conclusion.  In proper laboratory conditions involving the use of a fume chamber to make sure that those who are making Novochik are not themselves poisoned, any government agency could have produced it.  The formula is in a book.  The ingredients are readily available.  So any country, including America and England, could have made it.  There was no need to import it into the country.

However, if it were brought into the country in a package of kasha, as one report said, then we have to look towards Russia. However, if it were brought in this way it could not have been simply in a package or box of buckwheat groats, but rather, in a absolutely sealed container.  If not, everyone on the plane would have gotten ill.  So….so much for thatIf it had been, as initially suggested, put into their car exhaust system, they would have never made it to Salisbury.  However, if they had been exposed to a powder it could have taken them 18 hours to get ill.

Today in the news it was announced that the poison, in powdered form, was smeared on the inside of their door handle.  In powdered form, as noted above, it could take up to 18 hours to call them.  It also would explain why the officer was killed.  But the question is, wouldn’t everyone who touched that door handle get ill?   How many people touched it?

As the story goes, instead of taking his daughter to his social club for Sunday lunch, Sergei went instead to the Mill pub for drinks, and the toZizzi, an Italian restaurant.  “Trace” amounts of Novochik had been found in both places, indicating that it was found in powder form.  Shortly after 3.45pm, the father and daughter walked a short distance on Castle Street before turning right to stroll down Market Walk, a covered walkway.As they passed Snap Fitness, a gym at the end of the precinct at 3.47pm, they were captured briefly on CCTV.

A short time later, a woman named Ms. Church, saw the father and daughter slumped on the bench.  “I saw them both on the bench,” she said. “They were rigid but then she was having some kind of episode.”  Colonel Skripal was gazing up at the sky, eyes glazed, making strange hand gestures.

Sadly, if the Skripals were poisoned by Nocochick they will never fully recover.  Instead the same fate awaits them as that of Zheleznyakov.

Just a passing nod to the conspiracy theorists who present us with their own interesting analysis:  McConnell claims that Marcy used Nortel’s Joint Automated Booking System (JABS) to book a ConAir SWAT team for the recent attack on Sergei Skripal, a retired Russian military intelligence colonel who spied for Britain, where a powdered Novichok nerve agent apparently derived from Northwestern University’s Metal organic frameworks for the catalytic detoxification of chemical warfare nerve agents US20170128761A1 was placed in the ventilation system of his BMW in a hit allegedly ordered by Senior Executive Service leaders at The Defense Threat Reduction Agency HQ in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. (

  1. The U.S. has maintained an active biological and chemical warfare program since World War I. Today, this program is essentially only defensive. However, in the past, part of this large-scale program involved the manufacture and stockpiling of chemical and biological warfare agents and munitions. As of the early 1990s, the U.S. chemical weapon stockpile included an estimated 25,000 tons of chemical warfare agents including organophosphorus nerve agents, vesicant (blister) agents including mustard and Lewisite.

From relatively small beginnings, the U.S. military chemical warfare program expanded significantly during World War II, driven largely by the need to develop protection against the chemical warfare agents mustard and Lewisite (two examples of blister agents) known to be possessed by Axis forces. During World War II, Germany was known to possess these agents, and in fact used them against the Poles in 1939 (NAS 1993). Ultimately, the U.S. military concluded that animal studies were not an adequate substitute for human studies, and in 1942, U.S. military chemical weapons program managers initiated formal authority to recruit and use volunteer subjects.

However, by the 1950s, the U.S. military again became interested in human testing, this time with a focus upon newer chemical warfare agents including: • OrganoPhosphorus nerve agents such as sarin and VX, and • incapacitating agents including: ° tear gas; and ° psychoactive agents such as: • LSD; • PCP; and • synthetic cannabis analogs (NAS 1993, NRC 1982). These new classes of chemical warfare agents were seen as providing much more flexibility in chemical warfare compared to the older chemical warfare agents sulfur mustard and Lewisite.

DoD has also indicated that during these tests, they used most of the chemical warfare nerve agents that were in the U.S. arsenal at that time, including: • Sarin; • VX; • Tabun; and • Soman (all organophosphorus nerve agents).8

Darling, Robert G.; Noste, Erin E. (2016).”Future Biological and Chemical Weapons”. In Ciottone, Gregory R. Ciottone’s Disaster Medicine (Second ed.). Amsterdam: Elsevier. pp. 489–498. doi:10.1016/B978-0-323-28665-7.00080-7.

Lev Fyodorov and VilMirzayanov, “Poisoned Politics,” MoskovskiyeNovosti weekly No. 39, 1992. Much of this information was published earlier in the newspaper “Top Secret” run by ArtyomBorovik in September 1991. However the KGB did not arrest Mirzayanov earlier due to political turmoil in Russia at this time, according to a book by YevgeniaAlbats.

Will Englund (September 16, 1992). “Ex-Soviet scientist says Gorbachev’s regime created new nerve gas in ’91”. Baltimore Sun. Retrieved March 12,2018.

Will Englund (March 12, 2018). “What a brave Russian scientist told me about Novichok, the nerve agent identified in the spy attack”Washington Post.Retrieved March 12, 2018.


Mary Metzger is a New Yorker living in Moscow


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