The scientist who developed “Novichok”: “Doses ranged from 20 grams to several kilos”
The Bell was able to find and speak with Vladimir Uglev, one of the scientists who was involved in developing the nerve agent referred to as “Novichok”. According to British authorities, a nerve agent from the “Novichok” series was used to poison former Rusian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. Vladimir Uglev, formerly a scientist with Volsk branch of GOSNIIOKHT (“State Scientific-Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology”), which developed and tested production of new lethal substances since 1972, spoke for the first time about his work as early as the 1990s. He left the institute in 1994 and is now retired.
– The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs insists that there was no research nor development of any substance called “Novichok”, not in Russia, nor in the USSR. Is that true?
– In order to make it easier to understand the subject matter, I will not use the name “Novichok” which has is now commonly used by everyone to describe those four substances which were conditionally assigned to me to develop over a period of several years. Three of these substances are part of the “Foliant” program, which was led by Pyotr Kirpichev, a scientist with GOSNIIOKHT (State Scientific-Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology). The first substance of a new class of organophosphorous chemical agents, I will call it “A-1972”, was developed by Kirpichev in 1972. In 1976, I developed two substances: “B-1976” and “C-1976”. The fourth substance, “D-1980”, was developed by Kirpichev in the early 1980s. All of these substances fall under the group referred to as “Novichkov”, but that name wasn’t given to the substances by GOSNIIOKHT.
All four chemical agents are “FOS” or organophosphorous compounds which have a nerve paralyzing effect, but they differ in their precursors, how they were discovered and in their usage as agents of chemical warfare.
In the scientific group led by Kirpichev, several hundred modifications of this class of agents were discovered. Therefore, I can say with a high degree of certainty that no matter which new substances were developed, none of them exceeded the toxic properties of those listed above.
One of these substances was used to poison the banker, Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary in 1995. A cotton ball, soaked in this agent, was rubbed over the microphone in the handset of Kivelidi’s telephone. That specific dose was developed by my group, where we produced all of the chemical agents, and each dose which we developed was given its own complete physical-chemical passport. It was therefore not difficult to determine who had prepared that dose and when it was developed. Naturally, the investigators also suspected me. I was questioned several times about this incident.
In contrast to former GOSNIIOKHT scientist Vil Mirzayanov, who emigrated to the U.S. and is the author of the book “State Secrets: An Insider’s Chronicle of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program”, Uglev didn’t leave Russia. Mirzayanov gave several interviews over the past few days; these interviews provided most of what is known about “Novichok”. Russian authorities did not officially confirm the development of these nerve agents, actually, quite the opposite: on the 17th of March, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova stated that there was never, not in Russia, nor in the USSR, “any research which was called or had the code name ‘Novichok’.” Zakharova also named the U.S., UK and other countries as the most likely sources of the chemical agents. However, RIA Novosti published an interview today with a person called Leonid Rink, who is also identified in the text as the “developer of ‘Novichok’.”
– For what purpose were the chemical agents developed?
– This fell under the “Foliant” program which was ordered by the Ministry of Defense. The agents were designed as alternative to the Soviet analogy of the American nerve agent, VX.
– Which specific laboratory developed the chemical agent which we now refer to as “Novichok”?
– The Volsk branch of GOSNIIOKHT, which is in the Saratov region.
– Where was the pilot produced and in what quantity?
– In the laboratory itself. Sometimes in pilot production, but also using the laboratory table and equipment. Doses generally ranged from 20 grams to several kilos.
– Where was the agent stored?
– Small doses were stored by Pyotr Kirpichev and myself – in our working room in a metal sealed box safe. Large doses were stored in a special warehouse in sealed packaging. I don’t know anything else about what then happened to the doses beyond where they were stored.
– Did you work on these agents for a long time?
– According to my records, from 1972 until 1988.
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– If a chemical agent was first synthesized in the 1970s, would it be possible that there might have been later, improved versions, after you stopped working?
– I don’t think so. Pyotr Kirpichev’s group synthesized several hundred analogues of this series.
– It is possible to say with confidence that Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned with an agent from the “Novichok” series, or could it be confused with a nerve agent like, for example, VX (an organophosphorous poisonous agent first developed in the UK in 1952 – The Bell)?
– It’s unlikely to be confused with VX, but with Zoman and Zarin (nerve paralyzing gases – The Bell), it’s possible, but only before the laboratory investigation has begun. The chemical agents in our, as you called it, series, are extremely tenacious.
– In a recent interview which he gave to “Novaya Gazeta”, Mirzayanov says that a comparative analysis, was most likely conducted using samples from the victims of the poisoning, by comparing these samples with a formula which British specialists could have taken from his book. Could that be true?
– If you take a formula from that book you could conduct screening for several years. But specific agents and precursors for these agents are not included in his book.
– How could the person who poisoned Skripal and his daughter have done so without put himself in danger?
– Agents should be transported in a container suitable for combat use. It is likely that within this container the chemical agents were put on some kind of carrier (cotton balls, powder, ready-made poisonous elements). All of the container’s external surfaces must be covered in a degassing solution and wiped with a solvent. Therefore, the person who carried out the attack does not need to defend himself.
– The Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said that in order to specifically identify the chemical agent which was used, the British authorities must have had a sample of the nerve agent in their possession. How could the British have gotten their hands on a sample?
– The British, just like the Germans, are excellent chemists who can with one hint do what in Moscow is classified as top secret. In addition, the secret was already 20 years old in 1993. So the question should be directed to those specialists charged with protecting state secrets: is it possible to keep such information secret without any leaks?
– Why is Russia demanding that the British send a blood sample from the victims?
– From the remains of the chemical agents in the blood, it is possible, with the aid of various types of analyses, to determine where the specific dose was produced and by whom. I suspect that modern methods of analysis have even improved on what we had some 30 years ago.
– Is there even a minimal chance that the victims of the poisoning might recover?
– If Skripal and his daughter received a lethal dose of B-1976, C-1976, or D-1980, then, most likely, they will suffer the same fate as earlier victims. There is no antidote to these agents. I can say with nearly 100% certainty that if Skripal and his daughter are taken off of life support, they will die, although they are now only technically alive.
– Who could know the chemical formula for “Novichok”?
– In Russia, I would estimate, several dozen people.
– Did you ever share the formula? For example, in the media in the mid-1990s, when they were trying to confirm the development of new chemical agents?
– I never shared and I don’t intend to share the chemical formula for those agents. I never said which type of chemical combinations they are produced from. [I have said] only that they are related to the class of new generation nerve paralyzing agents.
– Why did the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) under the United Nations, if one finds their minutes from their meetings to be true, fail three times to find proof of production of this agent (searches began after the publication of Mirzayanov’s book in 2008)?
– It’s impossible to find a black button in a dark room. Moreover, the cat simply wasn’t there, because there wasn’t any production in the USSR, and Russia then was preoccupied with other things. The fact that the OPCW totally ignored our mutual statement with Mirzayanov in 1993 about the existence of agents of chemical warfare in Russia was a gross violation of the (Chemical Weapons) Convention, as signatory countries to the Convention are required to report the development of new substances, the most powerful of which are agents of chemical warfare (Russia only signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997 – The Bell).
– The media reported that “Novichok” supposedly exists as a “binary weapon” – the toxin is transferred via two less dangers substances, and when it is time to use the chemical agent, only then are the substances mixed together. It has also been suggested that “Novichok” could have been used for the attempt in London. Are the series of agents referred to as “Novichok” binary weapons?
– No one ever had any binary weapons. I think that several of my colleagues, just like I did, tried to work on this idea, but I don’t know a single binary weapon, not for VX, not for other types of chemical weapons. At least for the period up until 1994.
– In which form do the nerve paralyzing agents which we refer to as “Novichok” come in?
– Of the four substances, only the last one, D-1980, can be in powder form. The other three are liquid.
– How did British scientists manage to determine that the victims were poisoned with “Novichok”?
– So far, I have only read the confirmation by Theresa May that Skripal and his daughter were poisoned by nerve paralyzing agents. British scientists have not said anything yet.
– What was role did Vil Mirzayanov, now commonly referred to as the developer of “Novichok”, really play in the development of the agent? What was he actually responsible for?
– Mirzayanov didn’t have any role in the creation or even testing of synthesis methods to develop the technology behind “Novichok”, as he was in GOSNIIOKHT, and as far as I know, he was the head of the foreign counterintelligence department. His role, just like his department’s role, was to develop methods for control and for controlling the air space around the territory of GOSNIIOKHT in Moscow. His role as a scientist was only chromatography. Valeria Novodvorskaya first referred to Mirzayanov as the developer and “father of ‘Novichok’”, and Mirzayanov, it appears, really liked this, although he himself never confirmed this to be true, but Mirzayanov also never denied it when journalists described him as such.
I believe that it is time to say that Pyotr Petrovich Kirpichev is the only person behind the new type of FOS (organophosphorous compounds), a new category of specialized chemistry, and that this talented and modest chemist was responsible for the scientific discoveries in this area. I find it my duty to state this in his name and in his memory.
– And Leonid Rink, who is referred to in today’s RIA Novosti interview as the developer of “Novichok”, did you know him?
– Leonid Rink did actually work in our institute. But his group was responsible for the development [of those substances] only at the very end, when it became clear that a binary agent could not be developed from them. My group and Rink’s group both reported to Kirpichev. Rink’s group was tasked with developing my technology. At that point in time, it was clear to everyone that the days for chemical weapons in the USSR were already numbered.
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Svetlana Reiter, Natalia Gevorkyan (for The Bell)