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The Incapacitation of Salisbury

David Macilwain

This is a sequel to “The Poison Paradox – who knew?”, and a logical extrapolation of facts already established “beyond reasonable doubt” on the Salisbury poisonings. In the absence of a properly established scientific inquiry, and tribunal involving all the parties to this dispute, such “unprejudiced speculation” must suffice.

It is one of the great contradictions of our society, whose essential operations are now so inextricably linked to technology, that understanding of and respect for “science” is worse than ever before. This ignorance amongst the presumably well-educated Western public extends to almost all the areas of knowledge one can imagine – it is “in-omniscient”.

So instead of critical understanding of – say – the Carbon cycle or astronomy, we have the denial of catastrophic climate change and the mythology of hyper-temporal space travel. A recent report that a new planet had been discovered, whose “proximity to Australia” made it of special interest illustrates this cognitive disjunction. At only six light years from Earth it is close in astronomical terms – yet almost 400,000 times the distance to the Sun.

While the detection of this planet is remarkable – like finding a pea on a distant mountain peak – its actual existence has about as much meaning as that would in our daily lives. It only serves to bring home the acute loneliness of humanity as it faces obliteration – drowning in its own waste or turned to ash in a holocaust of nuclear idiocy.

Such scientific illiteracy is of course not universal, though the huge “scientific community” may be increasingly fragmented and specialised, and ever more reliant on information technology to control processes that are almost beyond individual comprehension. One suspects also that holistic understanding of science – or what was once called “Natural Philosophy” – is dying out as its old-school reservoirs are drying up.

All this is a necessary preamble for the strictly scientific case I intend to make – or reinforce – on the apparent poisoning of the five Salisbury “Novichok victims” with the Incapacitant known as “BZ”, or 3-quinuclinidyl Benzilate. That I must do this against a new blizzard of misinformation from the BBC’s notorious “Panorama” programme only makes the presentation of this circumstantial evidence more necessary; for doubters to finally conclude that “it must have been Novichok” simply because there seems no alternative would be most unfortunate.

There is now ample evidence to say – with reasonable certainty – that the Skripals and DS Bailey were initially affected by BZ, and that the Amesbury couple, Sturgess and Rowley also likely were – based on their reported symptoms and some prejudicial assumptions. For those who haven’t been following the story of “Operation Nina”, it is again necessary to repeat that “Novichok” has been categorically proven absent from the Salisbury environment, due to its extreme toxicity and its mode of action. The latest scare stories that “thousands could have died” had the alleged contents of the alleged perfume bottle been spread around only confirm this, because they didn’t. They are a new low in misinformation from the “investigating” authorities.

The discovery of BZ as the likely culprit for the Skripals’ poisoning may not have happened had Russia not obtained the original test results from the Spiez lab, which showed traces of BZ in the Skripals’ blood samples. The hostile reaction to Lavrov’s leaking of the details from the OPCW, UK and Dutch authorities both verified the lab’s findings and increased suspicion about them.

The finding of BZ in the blood samples by Spiez lab was confirmed however, but with the bizarre claim it was present as a result of being a “control sample” in the testing for Novichok. Neither BZ nor its “precursors” bear the remotest resemblance to Novichok and other related nerve agents, neither physically nor in their effects, so this claim is quite mendacious. It is those effects that I’ll now focus on.

To understand the extreme difference between Incapacitants such as BZ and Nerve agents like Novichok/A 234, VX and Sarin, a little knowledge of neurophysiology is necessary, and particularly on the way that nerve impulses are transmitted. Both types of chemical produce their effects on muscles, glands and brain by affecting this “neurotransmission”.

The transmission of nerve impulses across the junctions between nerves and muscles or glands is mediated by the “neurotransmitter” Acetylcholine. A Ch is produced at the nerve ending and migrates across the junction – synapse – to the muscle or gland receptors. Following this action an enzyme – Acetylcholine Esterase – rapidly breaks down the A Ch so that the stimulus to the gland or muscle ceases.

Nerve agents are described as “Anti-Choline-esterase” or Choline-esterase Inhibitors, and act so the A Ch from nerve impulses accumulates and causes continuous stimulation of the muscle or gland, with consequent symptoms of excessive fluid secretion and muscle paralysis, including of heart and diaphragm.

By contrast, BZ and related Anti-Cholinergic substances (which include Atropine and Scopolamine) prevent Acetyl Choline from acting on the receptor sites across the synapse by being absorbed onto and blocking those sites. This interruption to nerve impulses has an entirely different action on the body, with very distinct and visible symptoms I’ll describe shortly.

So the two classes of chemical are in fact antagonistic, and with opposite or very different effects. It may also be noted that consequently these antagonists may act as antidotes for each other; Atropine is for example the choice antidote for nerve agents; that BZ might be assumed to have similar activity against Novichok raises some interesting questions.

When we consider the reported symptoms of poisoning exhibited by the Skripals when they were noticed behaving oddly in the Salisbury Maltings area, the discovery – or revelation – of BZ in their blood samples starts to make sense. One of the strange but apparently characteristic symptoms of BZ intoxication, described in this document from the US Military, is a reaching up action, as if “picking clothes” or “wool-gathering”. This was also described by the only recorded witness, Freya Church:

“She was slumped over on the man’s shoulder. To be honest, I thought they might be homeless but they were perhaps better dressed.”

“I just thought this is weird, especially as she was clearly quite a bit younger than him.”

“She had a red bag at her feet. He was gesturing at the sky, doing some kind of movements with his hands.”

“He was looking up and his eyes were glazed.”

“There was no one else there near them at this point. No one was helping them.”

Regrettably we have no more descriptions of the Skripals’ condition, except from Salisbury Hospital staff, as reported previously. No doubt the normal case notes for them would be in the hospital records for the first 48 hours while they were in A&E as suspected Opiate overdose victims. Those notes are now of considerable interest in fact, as the other symptoms of BZ intoxication are quite distinct.

Unlike nerve agents, BZ does not cause paralysis and loss of consciousness within minutes of exposure. Symptoms may not appear for up to four hours, but then last for up to four days, depending on the dose. Those symptoms listed in the US manual above and elsewhere – and evidently witnessed in trials during the development of BZ as a “military grade” agent include the following – hallucinations and bizarre behaviour, fast heartrate for 2 days, dilated pupils with dry eyes, red-hot flush, disrobing, senseless speech, delirium and stupor.

It is quite clear from this that the A&E staff who treated the Skripals on admission must have observed some of these symptoms and reacted accordingly – which as ward nurse Sarah Clarke reported was simply that “they were needing support with their breathing, and support with their cardio-vascular system”. It is however usual to treat suspected Opioid overdose cases with Naloxone injection immediately; that the patients would not have responded to this or responded adversely would surely have been noted.

Opioids like Fentanyl are depressants, with symptoms quite unlike those of BZ – including tachycardia and hyperthermia, and this seems to be acknowledged by the BBC’s Mark Urban:

as they continued treating their patients, the early theory about opioid poisoning was discarded”.

In fact we might question whether that “theory” or clinical diagnosis of opioid poisoning was ever seriously considered, and “discarded” as soon as the patients were examined. Perhaps then doctors would have realised they were dealing with something unusual, and contacted the experts at Porton Down, though the reference to “phone calls starting” early on Monday morning suggests otherwise.

At this point however, some more questions arise, as the BBC report states that the Skripals’ Cholinesterase levels were “next to zero” – indicating a nerve agent or Cholinesterase inhibitor was present. But it is not clear whether this clinical observation and test was made following the intervention by Porton Down specialists. The interview comments from SDH staff are ambiguous on this point:

Lorna Wilkinson, Director of Nursing:

by the Tuesday, through various tests and diagnostics that we were running, that’s where it became apparent we were looking at a cholinesterase inhibition….”

Dr Christine Blanchard, Medical Director:

whilst a district general hospital, a laboratory, cannot test specifically for a nerve agent, we can request tests for eg anticholinesterase levels. It was our colleagues in Porton Down that helped us with the testing.”

Following this “helpful intervention”, no further clinical details are available, other than the doctors’ reference to “untested drugs” being tried, and then finally the rather rapid and unexpected recovery of both patients.

Given that the effects of BZ last no longer than four days maximum, a further – and highly problematic – question arises; why did the Skripals not then recover from their “incapacity”?

What other conclusion can we draw than this: that Yulia and Sergei Skripal were given some “special treatment” by Porton Down experts that kept them in a coma until it was expedient for them to “recover”?

Is it possible that the reported presence of trace amounts of “degraded Novichok” in the Skripals’ blood samples (along with the clearly false claim they contained “Novichok of high purity”) was evidence of this “special treatment”?

It also appears, now we have access to Det Sgt Bailey’s personal account, that he received rather different treatment:

I was conscious throughout the whole time,” he said. “I had lots of injections… I had five or six infusions at any one time in my arms. Physically, I felt quite numb after a while.”

Incapacitated even?