Now it is official that Sergei Skripal, the former Russian intelligence officer, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury last Sunday (4th March) by a nerve agent, there is something of a scramble among commentators to unpack what that scary-sounding term means.
Of course, the first thing it means is that Skripal is not a victim of food poisoning or some other accidentally incurred chemical or biological poisoning. As was suspected, given that he is a former spy jailed in Russia in 2006 for counter-espionage and then released in the kind of tit-for-tat swap most of us imagined went out of fashion after the Cold War ended, the poisoning is evidently deliberate. Counter-terrorist officials in the Metropolitan Police say they have identified the nerve agent used but have not yet disclosed what it was.
The BBC was told by an anonymous source that it is rare, however, and so seems unlikely to be the best known agents: sarin—which was used in the Tokyo underground attack by members of the Aum Shinrikyo sect in 1995, and last year by Syrian government forces to attack rebel groups—and VX, which was used to kill Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in Malaysia, also last year.
It’s the kind of substance, then, that few have access to. The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has been quoted as denying involvement of the Russian government, although naturally comparisons have been made with the murder by poison (in that case the rare element polonium-210) of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. An enquiry into that event concluded that it was carried out by Russian agents, probably ordered by President Putin.
Skripal and his daughter were found slumped unconscious on a bench by a shopping centre in Salisbury, and one eye-witness described him as performing “strange hand movements” and looking “out of it”—symptoms expected in victims of a nerve agent.
So what are these chemicals? There are plenty of substances that disrupt our nervous system, but not all are classed as “nerve agents.” Nature abounds in neurotoxins such as the nasty compounds in puffer fish, some shellfish and snakes, and the poison dart frog of the Colombian rain…