Chemical roulette and the Navalny case

On pages 58-62 of the October 2020 issue of CBRNeWorld you will find an article from me on the existing analytical methods that allowed to identify a nerve agent from the so-called Novichok-group as the cause for Alexei Navalny’s poisoning. The article also touches upon the question why so many people have survived exposure to such high toxic nerve agents and that a further amendment of the schedules of chemicals in the Chemical Weapons Convention is vital.

DER SPIEGEL article on the recovery process of Mr Navalny

German news Magazin DER SPIEGEL published an article on the recovery process of Mr Navalny where I was able to contribute with some commentary.

While it might appear like a fast recovery Mr Navalny spent almost the same time in hospital as Yulia Skripal, the daughter of Sergey Skripal, who was poisoned in March 2018 together with her father. Key aspects for recovery (apart from a good general intensive care) are the elimination of potentially remaining poison from the body and the time the body requires to synthesize new cholinesterases to restore functionality to nerve impulse transmission.

Interview with Riga based Russian online newspaper on the Navalny poisoning

I gave an interview to the Riga based Russian online newspaper on the Navalny case. I gave the interview just before Germany announced that they identified a nerve agent from the Novichok family as the chemical responsible for Mr Navalny’s poisoning.

Me an interview partner Alexander Ershov went into quite some detail on how such substances act a poisons, how analytical chemistry is able to identify them and how the outlook is for a total recovery.

I have to mention Medusa’s managing editor Kevin Rothrock who announced me on Twitter as “basically the real-life Nicholas Cage character from “The Rock” “. Well one important takeaway message from that movie is that VX nerve agent is not green (as depicted there).

Interview in German magazine DER SPIEGEL on the Navalny case

I gave an interview to the German magazine DER SPIEGEL on the Navalny case. Asking “Waren Sie wirklich so dumm” (“Were they really so stupid”) relates to the question if Russia wants to be associated with an assassination attempt using a potential organophosphorus agent again. While this is an import question the article (given to their science section) focuses on how a cholinesterase inhibitor (as generically identified by the Berlin university hospital Charité) can be identified by name and structure.

One of the core problems: The concentrations of relevant analyze chemical in biomedical samples is so low that you have to conduct so called targeted analysis – you have to search for specific compounds. A wide screening (let’s just look for everything) is not possible.

Nevertheless, I remain confident that the compound that is responsible for Mr Navalny’s current condition will be identified shortly.

….and I am actually quite proud of the fact that the interview for some time was second most read article on the SPIEGEL website.

Washington Post article on ammonium nitrate and the Beirut explosions

The Washington Post published an article on the risks, dangers and properties of ammonium nitrate – the chemical that was in all likelihood responsible for the catastrophic explosion in Beirut. It was a pleasure to be able to contribute some insights. Read the article here.

It is probably a natural thing that explosions of this size trigger conspiracy theories. From a nuclear detonation to the infamous “red mercury” – numerous “theories” float our social media channels.

This is interesting also from a historical perspective: When an explosion of ammonium nitrate for fertilizers of similar size blew up the BASF plant in Oppau in 1921 – just a few years after the end of World War 1 – there were theories floating in international media that secret weapon experiments were carried out with the possible involvement of Fritz Haber – the father of German gas warfare in the war but also Nobel Prize winner for inventing the Haber process to produce ammonia from nitrogen from the air. This ammonia was the precursor for the ammonium nitrate. It also shows the dual use dilemma of many chemicals.