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The Navalny case – Part One – Novichok evidence overview

In this article I will briefly discuss the information regarding Alexey Navalny having been poisoned with a member of the so-called Novichok family of nerve agents. This is important to understanding the case as a whole but not very interesting for the general public. So I’m not going to try to raise expectations here – but Part Two,  where I discuss where the evidence leads is much more interesting.

After Navalny awoke from his coma, according to his testimony, he was informed, to his great surprise, that “Three laboratories, in three countries” had confirmed he had been poisoned with Novichok. Navalny 21 September

“Two independent laboratories in France and Sweden, and the Bundeswehr specialised laboratory confirmed the presence of novichok in and on my body.”

Navalny apparently believes this to be true and combined with the information provided by Christo Grozev led him to believe the case of his own poisoning had been solved and he published the names of the alleged perpetrators on his web site.

His team have claimed that he was poisoned with Novichok in tea, that he was poisoned with a water bottle and more recently that he was poisoned by having Novichok inserted in his underpants.

But what does the Novichok evidence really amount to?

On August 20 Navalny fell ill on flight from Tomsk to Berlin – diverted to Omsk where he was treated with atropine.

He was transferred to the Berlin Charite hospital and on 24 August the following statement was issued:

“Following his admission, Mr. Navalny underwent extensive examination by a team of Charité physicians. Clinical findings indicate poisoning with a substance from the group of cholinesterase inhibitors. The specific substance involved remains unknown, and a further series of comprehensive testing has been initiated. The effect of the poison – namely, the inhibition of cholinesterase in the body – was confirmed by multiple tests in independent laboratories.”

This general diagnosis was confirmed on 2 September when it was announced that

The patient, whose symptoms were the result of cholinesterase inhibition following a confirmed poisoning event, continues to improve. The reason for this improvement is the gradual recovery of cholinesterase activity.” 

According to German government answers in the Bundestag the laboratory which first declared the poison was of the Novichok family was the Institut für Pharmakologie und Toxikologie der Bundeswehr (IPTB) in München. This was first announced on 2 September.

The German government says biological samples were taken by a Swedish lab on 5 September and the French lab & OPCW on 6 September. The IPTB results were confirmed on 7 September, 10 September and 5 October respectively.

The Swedish lab was in fact the Swedish Defence Research Agency’s lab in Umea (The FOI) as was confirmed by the head of the agency, Asa Scott, who told Swedish news agency TT:

“We can confirm that we see the same results as the German laboratory, that is, that there is no doubt that it is about these substances.”

The FOI made a statement on 15 September explaining how they came to their conclusion:

“In a somewhat simplified description of verification by blood analysis, the procedure is as follows: a blood sample from a person who is suspected of exposure to a nerve agent is collected. Blood contains proteins. A nerve agent reacts with and binds to these proteins: this is what makes nerve agents so poisonous. But, this same protein binding is what makes it possible to use blood samples to verify that the person has been exposed to a nerve agent.

Proteins are built as a long sequence of amino acids. By extracting the proteins from the blood, and then dividing the protein into shorter amino acid sequences, it is then possible to use a special technique, called liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (shortened as LC-MS/MS), to analyse patterns in precisely the part of the protein that the nerve agent has binded to. Different nerve agents give rise to different patterns. Based on the pattern from the protein from the blood sample, one can determine exactly which nerve agent the person has been exposed to.”

Following on from the reports from the two labs and a 4 September request from the German government, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) issued an apparently badly written (insofar as it seems to confuse biomarkers and the original toxic chemicals themselves) and opaque summary of their investigation, based on analysis of Navalny’s body fluids saying:

“The biomarkers of the cholinesterase inhibitor found in Mr Navalny’s blood and urine samples have similar structural characteristics to the toxic chemicals belonging to schedules 1.A.14 and 1.A.15, which were added to the Annex on Chemicals to the Convention at the Twenty-Fourth Session of the Conference of the States Parties in November 2019. This cholinesterase inhibitor is not listed in the Annex on Chemicals to the Convention.”

Toxic chemicals belonging to the “Novichok” family of substances were added to the OPCW annexes in November 2019.

Leading organophosphate chemist throws doubt on military labs and OPCW conclusions

Now in an anonymous statement published by John Helmer in an interesting post a leading British organophosphate chemist states:
“The statement from Dr Asa Scott is pure fantasy. LC-MS/MS is a very common technique, but it cannot do the job Dr. Scott claims. It can certainly be used to determine amino acids. However, knowing what amino acids or their ratios were measured in Navalny’s blood does not assist chemical identification. Blood concentration of amino acids is a common technique; for example, amino acids and four ratios — glutamate/citrulline, citrulline/phenylalanine, leucine plus isoleucine/phenylalanine, and arginine/phenylalanine — are an analysis performed for early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. But these ratios and the individual concentrations cannot lead to the identification of a specific chemical which has caused the change in concentration. It’s just not possible.”

“There is no doubt that Navalny had depressed Acetylcholine Esterase levels. Dr Scott claims that by looking at amino acids, the presence of, the absence of, the ratios, etc., “we can identify the compound that caused this”. This also means that these amino acids and the ratios are the only results which the Swedish laboratory obtained from Navalny. Scott for the Swedes, and no doubt the French and Germs too, are revealing that they are basing their interpretation of the results on the idea the biomarkers they found can tell us that the causative chemical was Novichok. This is nonsense. The Swedes have really let the cat out of the bag here.”

HRI asked the Swedish FOI lab the following questions:

1. Can you please explain where the leading chemist has gone wrong?

2. Can you explain in more detail how you can actually identify Novichok from biomarkers in the blood?

3. Can you please explain how you can identify that the substance involved was of the Novichok family but not one of the items added to the OPCW annexes last year?

4. Do you have a database of reference patterns on proteins caused by different nerve agents – how specific is it and how extensive is it?

This is the reply from Åsa Scott Head of Division CBRN Defence and Security at FOI:

Our analysis is solid. We do not see any reason to comment on other peoples comments.  Obviously, the analysis is far more complicated than described in a web text addressed to the public. We do not either publish details regarding assignments and specific analyses.

Conclusions

  1. Navalny was poisoned with a cholinesterase inhibitor.
  2. Navalny has been misadvised as there has been no poison found on his body (or on water bottles for that matter).
  3. It is not the case the laboratories concerned are independent, although we hold out hope they may yet confirm HRI’s analysis in Part Two.
  4. There is considerable doubt over the Novichok diagnosis.

Part Two is going to put forward a new evidence-based theory as to when, how, where, why and with what Navalny was poisoned. Once this theory is published it should be straightforward (from a scientific point of view) for scientists in Russia, Germany, France and Sweden to confirm.

Comments are welcome below, particularly from chemists. Comments will be moderated.

HRI can also be contacted on hri [at] riseup.net

Updates

22/12/2020 Comment from FOI added

23/12/2020 Detail of dates of taking of biomedical samples and confirmations by Sweden, France and OPCW added

3 replies on “The Navalny case – Part One – Novichok evidence overview”

An OPCW document appears to refute Mr Scott’s claim that with the LC-MS/MS technique, “one can determine exactly which nerve agent the person has been exposed to.”

“7. DIRECT ANALYSIS OF ADDUCTS
(…)
The different peptides generated by the Pepsin digest are separated using liquid chroma-tography (LC) and analysed using tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS). As the leav-ing group of the agent is lost when binding to AChE or BChE, this analysis can not reveal the absolute identity of the used agent (…)”

Click to access S_T_Biomed_Analysis_Poster.pdf

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