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Chemical weapons Human rights Russia

The Navalny case – swimming with vipers

Summary:

As there are similarities between the effects of organophosphate poisoning and of certain snake venoms, it should be investigated whether Alexey Navalny’s poisoning, unlikely as it seems, may have been the result of envenomation.

Reports in the media and by witnesses suggest that around 11pm (local time) 19th August Navalny went for a swim in the Tom River on the outskirts of the village of Kaftanchikovo 12 km from Tomsk.

A Human Rights Investigations (HRI) investigation now suggests the area is a habitat for venomous vipers.

The direction this investigation took was surprising and followed on from Navalny being diagnosed by the Berlin Charité Hospital as having been poisoned with a cholinesterase inhibitor and research indicating venom of a number of species of snake also contain cholinesterase inhibitors as well as numerous other toxins which may have interfered with a correct diagnosis by the Bundeswehr laboratory.

The facts outlined below mean that the unexplained diagnosis of the Bundeswehr laboratory as well as the findings of the laboratories which confirmed the German findings should be revisited.

The samples of Navalny’s blood and urine, including in particular those held by in Russia, be analysed independently.

Important aside

Vipers have co-existed with humans for centuries and do not usually attack unless they are frightened or trodden on by humans. They perform many useful functions and are recognized as an important part of the eco-systems and cultural heritage of the areas they inhabit. Various useful pharmaceutical products have been developed from their venom.

Navalny’s swim.

In a recent interview with Russian blogger Yury Dud, Mr. Navalny said that he went for a swim on the River Tom on the 19th of August:

Navalny says he had “gone for a swim in the Tom river” on the day before he fell seriously ill.

“Super dark riverbank, dark water”: Mr Navalny says it was dark at the time he went swimming.

It is reported Navalny’s swim was in the village of Kaftanchikovo.

According to the account of a local lawyer who lives in the village, who is one of Navalny’s supporters and who recommended the location for a swim, Navalny and six of his companions travelling in two cars met at the building of the administration in the village.

The time was reported to be around 10.30 and the lawyer reports that Navalny and his companions went directly to the river from that point.

If Navalny and his companions took the most direct route from the administration building this would have been a distance of around 450m and would have meant negotiating area of undergrowth, passing by a pond, fording a stream and crossing grassland before arriving at the rocky foreshore.

Good view of the distance from the administration building to the river at around 1:36 in this 2018 video of Kaftanchikovo.

It is possible the group took a longer route which would have brought them to the area of mixed shingle and vegetation seen below.

This may be the area where Mr Navalny and his companion entered the river

Are there poisonous vipers in the area where Navalny went for a swim?

Two poisonous species were identified as possibly in the area, Gloydius halys and Vipera berus. However, no clear evidence was found that the former’s range extends as far down river as Kaftanchikovo.

The initial suspect (may be the wrong word as the snake would have been acting in self-defence) was Gloydius halys, a sub-species of Asian pit viper.

Trawling through Russian scientific documents, a clear picture of the snake’s preferred habitats, behaviours and confirmed range emerged.

Habitat and behaviour

It has been established that the Gloydius halys would have been active in late August. The adult snake lives primarily on lizards and this area would be both rich in lizard life and because of the mix of river, stony fore-shore (talus or scree) and vegetation this area represent an favourable environment for the viper to hunt, feed, swim and be able to regulate its body temperature throughout the day.

In an ideal habitat, over 250 individuals of this particular species have been found per hectare.

Pit vipers use their sense of thermal radiation to hunt, but are unlikely to bite human beings unless it feeling threatened. The snake avoids human contact and is likely to flee if a human approaches which it can sense through vibrations in the soil. It is therefore likely that they are rarely, if ever encountered by the villagers. The snake is less likely to sense the approach of a human being if the soil is soft.

If stepped on by a human being the snake will strike, delivering a complicated cocktail of toxins including nerve agent (Presynaptic neurotoxins commonly called β-neurotoxins). This species has the interesting behavioral feature that when frightened, it will deliver a pungent and unpleasant odor from its anal glands.

A more likely “culprit”

It is worth pointing out that the presence of vipers in this region is not a rare event but has been covered by Russian media in the months and even weeks before Mr Navalny’s poisoning including the Moscow Times in 2019. 

On 30 June 2020 a story about an invasion of vipers in the village of Stephanovski, also in the Tomsk area received widespread coverage in Russia.

https://www.tvtomsk.ru/news/60202-zmei.html

The general advice is to avoid areas where these reptiles are likely to be found, such as dark riverbanks.

It was whilst looking on Google Maps for the ideal winter hideouts (south and west-facing talus) for Gloydius halys that proof of just how close to Navalny’s swim poisonous vipers are to be found.

Settlements downstream from Yurga, where a well-known Russian herpetologist located the Gloydius halys in 2006, were being looked at and a 2019 article about the Blue Cliff and Snake Mountain was found which states:

According to Kulakova, despite the fact that the place is very beautiful, before the construction of the health resort, people did not want to settle on the Blue Cliff. The reason for this is the large number of snakes.

“There have always been a lot of snakes. And in the old days people never settled where snakes lived. Therefore, a village (Kolarovo) appeared below, and not here. But modern man no longer listened to this tradition, although snakes still live here. They are vipers “

These snakes are reported as the poisonous common vipers Vipera berus which have a large range across Europe and Asia.

Satellite imagery of area.
Point A is a confirmed wintering location for poisonous vipers (The Blue Cliff).
B and C are the two most probable locations for Navalny to have entered & exited the river.

Another view of the short distance between the confirmed wintering location of the vipers and Navalny’s swimming location from a YouTube video.

What do we know about the venom from this snake?

We know there is considerable variability between different populations of Vipera berus. These snakes have a large range across Europe and Asia and the research indicates the venom of this snake varies widely in neurotoxicity by region, by age of the snake and even by individual snake. It is therefore important that the particular snakes in this region of Tomsk Oblast be studied for the properties of their venom.

We can read on Wikipedia that:

Females usually give birth in August or September, but sometimes as early as July, or as late as early October. Litters range in size from 3 to 20. The young are usually born encased in a transparent sac from which they must free themselves. Sometimes, they succeed in freeing themselves from this membrane while still inside the female.

Neonates measure 14 to 23 cm (5.5 to 9.1 in) in total length (including tail), with an average total length of 17 cm (6.7 in). They are born with a fully functional venom apparatus and a reserve supply of yolk within their bodies.

So is it possible for elements in the venom of the common viper to be confused with organophosphate nerve agents?

This quote from Wikivisually suggests it may be:

Venom disrupters of acetylcholine neurotransmission penetrate the neuromuscular junction, where they interfere with either the production or reception of acetylcholine, or the hydrolysis of acetylcholine after it has achieved its function of neurotransmission. That mechanism is in some ways similar to the effect of the so-called organophosphate nerve agents.

As HRI revealed in Part One of this investigation write-up, the evidence that Mr Navalny was poisoned a new form of Novichok was scientifically controversial even before this article was published.

General discussion

  1. The point behind this article’s publication is to push the Navalny investigations, official and unofficial, forward and encourage Russia and Germany, in particular, to come to an agreement that allows for a purely scientific, unbiased and independent analysis of Mr. Navalny’s blood and urine samples.
  2. Unfortunately, it is impossible to escape the view that the OPCW, which had been such a fantastically successful organisation, has failed in its role as an independent arbiter of the truth. Its hard to see it ever regaining the trust which it once had which was based on consensus.
  3. It is quite clear that questions over chemical weapons have become politicized. Politicians should tell their intelligence agencies that information warfare over chemical weapons should stop.
  4. Scientists need to stand up and be counted. The world is not going to be safe if scientists don’t stand up for the truth and admit the limits of their knowledge.

Questions and answers

Have you talked to Mr Navalny?

I have asked him about what could be a plaster on the bed in the hotel room but he has not replied.

He did not respond to an offer to see this article and make comments prior to publication:

Do you have a theory about what happened?

There are a number of scenarios possible.

The vipers spend a considerable portion of the year in hibernation. they emerge in spring to mate and forage for food. The pregnant female vipers give birth after about four months and their off-spring (between 4 and 20 neonates per female) are born with full venom sacs. If a human approaches a location where snakes are the snakes will seek a hiding place.

We do not know where Mr Navalny put his clothes, or his shoes whilst he was swimming. He could have been bitten on the way to the swimming location, in the water or after his swim. If he was bitten by a neonate hiding in his clothes he may not have thought it was a big deal.

If someone was bitten would they know?

It is just possible to be bitten by a viper and not to realise that is what happened, perhaps in the dark a small cut could be from a sharp stone. There would usually be two small pin pricks in the skin. This is the reason for the question about what may be a plaster on the bed in the hotel room.

Even if knowingly bitten, this may not be considered a major problem as many snakes are harmless and many bites are “dry bites.” The only smart thing to do, if aware of a snake bite is to go to the local hospital.

If he was bitten wouldn’t he have felt the effects soon after?

Although the effects of snake bite may come on quite quickly, this is not necessarily the case and delays of 12 hours or more have been recorded.

But wasn’t Navalny saved by Atropin?

Atropin is used to treat snake bite.

What about the report in The Lancet by the Berlin Charité Hospital?

It is strange the article is entitled “Novichok nerve agent poisoning” when this was not established by the doctors concerned.

The doctors say:

“Approximately 31 h after symptom onset, a doctor from the German air ambulance crew had temporary access to the patient and recorded … wide pupils non-reactive to light”

This seems to be opposite to what we would expected from organophosphate poisoning but typical of snakebite.

The doctors say,

“In skin swabs obtained on admission to the intensive care unit at Charité, we noted colonisation with five different multidrug-resistant bacteria: Staphylococcus aureus, Acinetobacter baumannii complex, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Escherichia coli, and Klebsiella pneumoniae.”

But, unusually, the doctors do not say why they took these skin swabs or where they were taken from.

Do you not have trust in the Bundeswehr Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology?

Please refer to Part One. It appears from reading the papers of the Bundeswehr team that they are largely focused on OP poisoning with man-made substances. There are, it has to be said, major ethical problems with their research and in this case there is zero transparency.

Did you receive Russian help in compiling this report?

As various infowarriors will be on the case, I have to admit that Russian help was forthcoming in producing this report, in particular from the “учеников Кафтанчиковской школы Томской области” whose excellent work, especially the video below, is much appreciated.

Comments are very welcome, especially from herpetologists, venomologists and chemists.

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