Novichok. Novicheck. The UK government can’t even get the name of the alleged Salisbury nerve agent right

We can be pretty sure, thanks to the BBC’s extremely well-briefed security correspondent Frank Gardner, that police currently believe they are searching for a cosmetic spray bottle that was used to deliberately poison the Skripals and accidentally (it seems) fatally poison Dawn Sturgess and seriously injure Charlie Rowley with some kind of nerve agent.

We can also be absolutely sure that the police still haven’t found any evidence of who did it. It’s also abundantly clear that the substance in the missing perfume bottle, if said bottle exists, is highly unlikely to be the A234 ‘Novichok’ nerve agent, despite what the UK government claims.

From its symptoms and survivability, the apparently-not-Novichok agent used in Salisbury was quite likely something like trimethyl fentanyl (3MF) or Carfentanil; extremely powerful synthetic opioids which have been around since the 1970s and whose toxicity has been compared to that of nerve gas.

Carfentanil and 3MF produce initial symptoms similar to those reported by witnesses who saw the Skripals on the bench in March. Medical personnel in Salisbury initially diagnosed the Skripals as having taken fentanyl and they apparently treated them accordingly.

It is worth noting that the extreme toxicity of 3MF, Carfentanil and similar compounds available on the illegal drugs market requires medics, law enforcement personnel and clean up teams teams to to take maximum precautions. The familiar-looking photo below isn’t from Salisbury or Amesbury but from the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s briefing guide (PDF) for first responders specifically when dealing with fentanyl and its more-powerful derivatives.

Not Novichok: this image is from the US DEA protection guidelines for responders dealing with suspected fentanyl

The Russian authorities used Carfentanil in aerosol form as an incapacitating agent in the botched operation to subdue Chechen terrorists during the Moscow theater hostage crisis in 2002. The 125 people who died in the theatre from respiratory failure were found to have died because the rescue teams underestimated the amount of Carfentanil antidote they needed to have on hand.

Although the Moscow theatre debacle does fit the UK government’s narrative about Russia having ‘form’ around using powerful narcotics in public places, it doesn’t in any way correspond to them allegedly using a massively-deadly, organophosphate-based military nerve agent on a supposed FSB target in an English shopping centre. But, as we’ve seen, the effects of whatever was used on the Skripals bear little resemblance to those of Novichok poisoning (i.e. rapid death or, in the unlikely event of survival, permanent damage to the central nervous system).

On the other hand, if the substance used on the Skripals was fentanyl or a super-strength fentanyl derivative, that would explain why the treatment for fentanyl poisoning that they initially received in Salisbury helped to prevent them dying.

Also bear in mind that the government identification of the Skripal substance was made from blood tests on the victims. We were told these tests revealed a very pure form of A234 Novichok. Which was odd, since A234 is so deadly that you’d expect a ‘very pure’ form of it to have killed them on the spot.

Indeed, it is this curious, delayed-action, deadly/not deadly behaviour of the alleged Novichok that has led the UK authorities such a merry dance around doorknobs and car ventilators, as well as around diametrically-opposed versions of the poison’s weather resistance, to explain its refusal to act like A234.

Even the docile BBC appears to have lost some of its willingness to stick to the ‘always blame Novichok but never give the same version of events’ narrative over the weekend.

On the BBC Radio 4 Today programme last Thursday (5 July), John Humphrys interviewed the UK security minister, Ben Wallace, MP, about the poisoning of two people in Amesbury. Humphrys began by lobbing the minister the softest of balls so that he could bat the blame squarely in the direction of the Kremlin:

Humphrys: Ben Wallace, good morning to you. Let’s deal with that Russian responsibility first. Obviously, if it’s Novichok, and we now know it was Novichok… It’s a fact, isn’t it? They have confirmed that? Just a ‘yes’ to that will do because Scotland Yard confirmed that last night. … presumably the government authorised it?

Ben Wallace: Yes it’s been confirmed that these two victims are suffering the consequences of exposure to Novicheck [sic] nerve agent.

Novicheck? Wallace has been in post since 2016.

John Humphrys: Right. And therefore it must be Russian because they’re the people who do it?

Ben Wallace: Based on the evidence we had at the time of the Skripal attack; the knowledge that they had developed Novichok; that they had explored assassination programmes in the past; that they had motive, form and stated policy, and that the targets were linked, we would still assert to a very high assurance that Russia was behind … that the Russian state was behind … the original attack.

Ah, now it’s Novichok, although it’ll go back to ‘Novicheck’ again later in the interview. Also note that Humphrys is assiduously framing the discussion around the ‘fact’ that, in his inelegant phrasing, “it must be Russian because they’re the people who do it.” Even then, the minister still equivocates: “…we would still assert to a very high assurance that … the Russian state was behind” the attack on the Skripals. Or as they say, “plausible, plausible, plausible”.

Craig Murray described back in April how senior civil servants were still deeply sceptical of Russian responsibility for the alleged ‘Novichok’ attack on the Skripals, despite intense Government pressure to point the finger at the Kremlin.

Earlier in last Thursday’s programme, Humphrys was assured by another regular player in the official Novichok narrative, Hamish ‘wanna buy a gas mask?’ de Bretton-Gordon, that both pairs of victims would have had to ingested the substance to be poisoned by it. Mere skin contact wouldn’t be enough, he said. This angle seems to be an attempt to reassure the long-suffering residents of Salisbury that they will be safe enough as long as they avoid licking their fingers after touching discarded perfume bottles.

However, the ingestion claim is absolutely not true of either Novichok or 3MF/Carfentanil, which can both be absorbed in lethal doses through the skin.

Ben Wallace, despite being unsure of the right pronunciation of the alleged Russian nerve agent, correctly answered this point. “Novicheck [sic] in the smallest form can kill thousands of people,” he told Humphrys.

“Your skin would fight it off,” persisted Humphrys.

“No, it would kill you,” countered Wallace, winning the argument with Humphrys but trashing much of the government’s wider Novichok narrative, since the Skripals are still very much alive in spite of allegedly encountering the agent in a very pure form (and likely inhaling it if it was administered as an aerosol spray from a luxury perfume bottle).

One might get the impression from Ben Wallace’s interview that he’s not as well briefed on the affair as some other people are. The BBC’s Frank Gardner sometimes seems so well-briefed that he could be part of the security services themselves – though now even he seems to be having trouble reconciling the proliferating contradictions in the official narrative.

During an interview with Gardner on this morning’s Today programme (9 July), John Humphrys did a reverse ferret;  now being as keen to point out that there’s no actual evidence the Russian state did it as he was keen last week to suggest the Kremlin were the most likely offenders:

John Humphrys: Part of the problem is, I suppose, though, we don’t have evidence – I stress evidence … the sort of evidence that would stand up in a court – that it was the Russians who did it?

Frank Gardner: That’s exactly the problem. It gives the Kremlin enough wriggle room to say: “It wasn’t us. There are lots of different theories.” You are absolutely right; I have still yet to see – obviously I talk to lots of people about this – I have yet to see any kind of real smoking gun as it were. There is nothing that… and they may never find it. I mean, some people I have spoken to are confident that even if it takes three years, they will find the culprits. I’m not so sure.

‘No evidence’ is a bit more than simply wriggle room, Mr Gardner, surely? And you assert that the people who say they’re sure they need to look for a perfume bottle or ‘luxury item’ actually haven’t the foggiest idea who carried out the Skripal attack and probably still won’t have in three years’ time. All we think we know is that someone tossed away a potentially deadly cosmetic item in an unknown location, where it was eventually found by Sturgess and/or Rowley.

Even that angle could be a red herring. Fentanyl-related deaths increased sharply among UK heroin addicts last year. Although the problem has been mainly associated with the north east of England, there are reports of heroin being mixed with Carfentanil in Wiltshire.

So here’s one hypothesis. Dawn Sturgess, tragically, is the latest in a growing roll call of British heroin addicts killed by the highly risky trend for mixing heroin with Carfentanil. The fatal agent in her case was the same as the one that poisoned the Skripals: just not a Novichok as was too-rapidly alleged by the spooks who sent the Government down this rocky road back in March.

That road is becoming a morass of contradictions, which the government can barely manage and which the media seems to be finding increasingly embarrassing to overlook, despite the two D-Notices slapped on it.

If the person or persons who poisoned the Skripals did indeed do it with an aerosol spray charged with a fentanyl derivative, then the perfume bottle/luxury item delivery system angle might be a surmise by the police, since that is the kind of object a homeless addict might pick up in the hope of selling it or just enjoying a touch of opulence.

Or the police could be searching for a bottle because the Skripals saw it and described it.

In the case of the couple from Amesbury, it looks even more like fentanyl was involved since they were, or had recently been, part of a section of the population where deaths from fentanyl/heroin are occurring more frequently. Ms Sturgess’s death may not be linked to the Skripal case in any way except that she happened to live in Salisbury.

Applying Occam’s razor to their situation; when someone with a history of heroin use falls ill with many symptoms of Carfentanil (or similar) poisoning, what is more likely? That they somehow stumbled across, then sniffed or licked, then lost, a luxury perfume bottle filled with possibly enough Novichok to murder a city, that had been heinously left lying around a park for four months by bumbling or utterly reckless FSB hit men?

Or that there was some China White mixed into their last hit? Or that they’d used straight fentanyl because it’s cheaper than smack?

Either way, the only thing we seem to be fairly sure of was that the Skripals were deliberately poisoned by someone. It doesn’t look like a Novichok was used. It does look very like a fentanyl derivative. Who did it and why are still questions that, per the extremely well-connected Frank Gardner, nobody but the perpetrator(s) knows the answer to.

The UK government can’t stop itself and its over eager media from handling the matter in a way that’s damaging to Britain’s credibility around the world and disastrous for Salisbury’s economy.

Perhaps the only hope is that, with her Brexit strategy falling apart at the seams and Boris Johnson finally gone from the Foreign Office, Theresa May will decide the Novichok malarkey is one mess too many on her plate, and allow the police to investigate the affair free from the constraints imposed by old style global paranoias.

I’m not holding my breath. Except when using an aerosol.

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